Tamoxifen resistance in breast tumors is driven by growth factor receptor signaling with repression of classic estrogen receptor genomic function

Cancer Res. 2008 Feb 1;68(3):826-33. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-07-2707.


Not all breast cancers respond to tamoxifen, and many develop resistance despite initial benefit. We used an in vivo model of estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer (MCF-7 xenografts) to investigate mechanisms of this resistance and develop strategies to circumvent it. Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and HER2, which were barely detected in control estrogen-treated tumors, increased slightly with tamoxifen and were markedly increased when tumors became resistant. Gefitinib, which inhibits EGFR/HER2, improved the antitumor effect of tamoxifen and delayed acquired resistance, but had no effect on estrogen-stimulated growth. Phosphorylated levels of p42/44 and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinases (both downstream of EGFR/HER2) were increased in the tamoxifen-resistant tumors and were suppressed by gefitinib. There was no apparent increase in phosphorylated AKT (also downstream of EGFR/HER2) in resistant tumors, but it was nonetheless suppressed by gefitinib. Phosphorylated insulin-like growth factor-IR (IGF-IR), which can interact with both EGFR and membrane ER, was elevated in the tamoxifen-resistant tumors compared with the sensitive group. However, ER-regulated gene products, including total IGF-IR itself and progesterone receptor, remained suppressed even at the time of acquired resistance. Tamoxifen's antagonism of classic ER genomic function was retained in these resistant tumors and even in tumors that overexpress HER2 (MCF-7 HER2/18) and are de novo tamoxifen-resistant. In conclusion, EGFR/HER2 may mediate tamoxifen resistance in ER-positive breast cancer despite continued suppression of ER genomic function by tamoxifen. IGF-IR expression remains dependent on ER but is activated in the tamoxifen-resistant tumors. This study provides a rationale to combine HER inhibitors with tamoxifen in clinical studies, even in tumors that do not initially overexpress EGFR/HER2.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Drug Synergism
  • Gefitinib
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Quinazolines / pharmacology
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / biosynthesis
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism*
  • Receptor, IGF Type 1 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Estrogen / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / genetics*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Tamoxifen / pharmacology*
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Quinazolines
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Tamoxifen
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Receptor, IGF Type 1
  • Gefitinib