Reversal of tamoxifen resistant breast cancer by low dose estrogen therapy

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 Feb;93(2-5):249-56. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2004.12.005.


Currently, the standard of care for estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer is 5 years of tamoxifen (TAM) or an aromatase inhibitor (AI) such as anastrozole. New studies indicate that extending antiestrogen therapy beyond 5 years with sequential regimens will improve disease-free survival. Based on the emerging concept that longer therapies are better, we have developed sequential models of tamoxifen-resistant breast cancer in vivo to mimic the clinical scenario of long-term antiestrogen therapy. The goal of the current study was to investigate the consequences of long-term treatment with tamoxifen on the growth of breast tumors in athymic mice. The results demonstrate that there are distinct phases of resistance to tamoxifen that correlate with time of treatment and expression of HER2/neu mRNA. In the treatment phase, 17beta-estradiol (E2) stimulated growth, while TAM inhibited growth of MCF-7 tumors (MCF-7E2). The withdrawal of treatment, mimicking the use of an AI, completely prevented growth. In Phase I resistance, the tumors (MCF-7TAMST) were growth-stimulated by either E2 or TAM, but inhibited by no treatment, fulvestrant, or E2 + fulvestrant. Phase II-resistant tumors (MCF-7TAMLT) were treated for more than 5 years and growth-stimulated by TAM. However, no treatment, fulvestrant, or E2 completely inhibited growth. Interestingly, the few tumors (MCF-7TAMLT) that survived in response to E2 were robustly re-stimulated by E2 after transplantation into new generations of athymic mice. These E2-stimulated tumors (MCF-7TAME) were inhibited by TAM in a dose-dependent similar to their parental tumors (MCF-7E2). In addition, the MCF-7TAME tumors were inhibited by either no treatment or fulvestrant. HER2/neu and HER3 mRNAs were over-expressed in TAM-stimulated MCF-7TAMLT tumors and remained high in E2-stimulated MCF-7TAME tumors. The data indicate that complete reversal of resistance to TAM can be achieved with the use of low dose E2 therapy. Also, these data suggest that over-expression of HER2/neu alone is insufficient to predict resistance to TAM. Based on the results, we suggest using an alternating treatment regimen, cycling antiestrogen with estrogen therapy to avoid drug-resistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / drug effects
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • Estradiol / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Genes, erbB-2
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Neoplasm Transplantation
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • RNA, Neoplasm / genetics
  • RNA, Neoplasm / metabolism
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-4
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators / pharmacology*
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators / therapeutic use
  • Tamoxifen / pharmacology*
  • Tamoxifen / therapeutic use
  • Transplantation, Heterologous


  • RNA, Messenger
  • RNA, Neoplasm
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators
  • Tamoxifen
  • Estradiol
  • ERBB4 protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Erbb4 protein, mouse
  • Receptor, ErbB-3
  • Receptor, ErbB-4