Purpose: The antiestrogen tamoxifen is effective in therapy for breast cancer. However, its use is limited by the eventual development of acquired tamoxifen resistance in many patients. The mechanisms responsible for tamoxifen resistance remain unknown; loss of estrogen receptor (ER), selection of hormone-independent breast cancer clones, or alterations in serum tamoxifen levels after long-term use do not explain acquired resistance in most patients. Using an experimental model in which human breast cancer cells develop resistance in athymic mice treated with tamoxifen, we have recently shown that acquired resistance is associated with markedly reduced cellular concentrations of tamoxifen and by isomerization of the trans-4-hydroxy metabolite to the less potent cis isomer.
Materials and methods: Using a sensitive high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) assay, we have now measured levels of tamoxifen and its major metabolites in a series of 14 tumors from patients treated with tamoxifen. The duration of therapy ranged from 1 month to 6 years.
Results: Tumor tamoxifen levels varied over a wide range. Low concentrations were observed in tumors from eight patients, all demonstrating progressive disease at the time of biopsy after a minimum duration of treatment of 6 months. Six tumors had moderate to high tamoxifen levels, two from patients responding to tamoxifen, one from a patient with stable disease, and three from patients with disease progression. Both the cis and trans isomers of the potent antiestrogenic metabolite 4-hydroxy-tamoxifen were detected in 11 tumors. Six tumors had high ratios of the cis to trans isomer (1.10:2.06), all from patients not responding to tamoxifen. The five tumors with low cis:trans ratios included the two tumors from responding patients and three from patients with progression. All but one of the 11 nonresponding patients had either a low tumor tamoxifen level, a high cis:trans ratio, or both.
Conclusion: This study clearly demonstrates a wide range of tumor tamoxifen levels and accumulation of the less antiestrogenic cis isomer of 4-hydroxytamoxifen in some patients on tamoxifen therapy. Additional study is necessary to determine if these metabolic profiles are related to the development of tamoxifen resistance.