Development and evolution of therapies targeted to the estrogen receptor for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer

Steroids. 2007 Jan;72(1):7-25. doi: 10.1016/j.steroids.2006.10.009. Epub 2006 Dec 13.


This article describes the origins and evolution of "antiestrogenic" medicines for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Developing drugs that target the estrogen receptor (ER) either directly (tamoxifen) or indirectly (aromatase inhibitors) has improved the prognosis of breast cancer and significantly advanced healthcare. The development of the principles for treatment and the success of the concept, in practice, has become a model for molecular medicine and presaged the current testing of numerous targeted therapies for all forms of cancer. The translational research with tamoxifen to target the ER with the appropriate duration (5 years) of adjuvant therapy has contributed to the falling national death rates from breast cancer. Additionally, exploration of the endocrine pharmacology of tamoxifen and related nonsteroidal antiestrogen (e.g. keoxifene now known as raloxifene) resulted in the laboratory recognition of selective ER modulation and the translation of the concept to use raloxifene for the prevention of osteoporosis and breast cancer. However, the extensive evaluation of tamoxifen treatment revealed small but significant side effects such as endometrial cancer, blood clots and the development of acquired resistance. The solution was to develop drugs that targeted the aromatase enzyme specifically to prevent the conversion of androstenedione to estrone and subsequently estradiol. The successful translational research with the suicide inhibitor 4-hydroxyandrostenedione (known as formestane) pioneered the development of a range of oral aromatase inhibitors that are either suicide inhibitors (exemestane) or competitive inhibitors (letrozole and anastrozole) of the aromatase enzyme. Treatment with aromatase inhibitors is proving effective and is associated with reduction in the incidence of endometrial cancer and blood clots when compared with tamoxifen and there is also limited cross resistance so treatment can be sequential. Current clinical trials are addressing the value of aromatase inhibitors as chemopreventive agents for postmenopausal women.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aromatase / metabolism
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Estrogen Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Estrogen Receptor Modulators / therapeutic use
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / metabolism
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Estrogen / drug effects*
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators / therapeutic use*
  • Tamoxifen / therapeutic use


  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • Estrogen Antagonists
  • Estrogen Receptor Modulators
  • Estrogens
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators
  • Tamoxifen
  • Aromatase