Adaptive hypersensitivity to estrogen: mechanisms and clinical relevance to aromatase inhibitor therapy in breast cancer treatment

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 May;95(1-5):155-65. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2005.04.025.


Breast tumors in women can adapt to endocrine deprivation therapy by developing hypersensitivity to estradiol. For this reason, aromatase inhibitors can be effective in women relapsing after treatment with tamoxifen or following oophorectomy. To understand the mechanisms responsible, we examined estrogenic stimulation of cell proliferation in a model system and provided in vitro and in vivo evidence that long-term estradiol deprivation (LTED) causes "adaptive hypersensitivity". The primary mechanisms responsible involve up-regulation of ER alpha as well as the MAP kinase, PI-3 kinase, and mTOR growth factor pathways. ER alpha is 4-10-fold up-regulated and co-opts a classical growth factor pathway using Shc, Grb2, and Sos. This induces rapid non-genomic effects which are enhanced in LTED cells. Estradiol binds to cell membrane associated ER alpha, physically associates with the adaptor protein Shc, and induces its phosphorylation. In turn, Shc binds Grb2 and Sos which result in the rapid activation of MAP kinase. These non-genomic effects of estradiol produce biologic effects as evidenced by Elk activation and by morphologic changes in cell membranes. Additional effects include activation of PI-3 kinase and mTOR pathways through estradiol induced binding of ER alpha to the IGF-1 and EGF receptors. Further proof of the non-genomic effects of estradiol involved use of "designer" cells which selectively express ER alpha in nucleus, cytosol, and cell membrane. We have used a new downstream inhibitor of these pathways, farnesyl-thio-salicylic acid (FTS), to block proliferation in hypersensitive cells as a model for a potentially effective strategy for treatment of patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / therapeutic use*
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Estradiol / pharmacology*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / genetics
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / metabolism*
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Protein Kinases / genetics
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Protein Transport


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal
  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Estrogens
  • Estradiol
  • Protein Kinases