Selective estrogen receptor modulators and a combination of mechanistically distinct chemotherapeutic agents represent conventional therapeutic interventions for estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) clinical breast cancer. Long-term treatment with these agents is associated with acquired tumor resistance and other adverse side effects that impact on patient compliance. Herbal medicines are being widely used in complementary and alternative medicine. However, long-term safety and efficacy of the use of herbal medicines, as well as their interaction with conventional endocrine and chemotherapeutic drug regimens remain largely unknown. The present study utilized a human cell culture model for ER+ clinical breast cancer to examine the potential therapeutic efficacy of an aqueous extract prepared from the fruit of popular Chinese herb Cornus officinalis (CO), also known as Fructus cornii. The human mammary carcinoma-derived MCF-7 cell line represented the model. Status of anchorage-independent growth and cellular metabolism of 17β-estradiol (E₂) represented the quantitative end-point biomarkers for efficacy. MCF-7 cells adapted for growth in serum-depleted medium (0.7% serum, <1 nM E₂) retained their endocrine responsiveness as evidenced by growth promotion by physiological levels of E₂, and growth inhibition by the selective ER modulator tamoxifen at the clinically achievable concentrations. Treatment of MCF-7 cells with CO resulted in inhibition of E₂-stimulated growth in a dose-dependent manner. Similarly, CO treatment also produced a dose-dependent progressive reduction in the number of anchorage-independent colonies, indicating effective reduction of the carcinogenic risk. Treatment of MCF-7 cells with CO at a maximally effective cytostatic concentration resulted in a 5.1-fold increase in the formation of the anti-prolifertive E₂ metabolite 2-hydoxyestrone (2-OHE₁), a 63.6% decrease in the formation of the pro-mitogenic metabolite 16α-hydroxestrone (16-αOHE₁) and a 9.1% decrease in the formation of mitogenically inert metabolite estrone (E₃). These alterations led to a 14.5-fold increase in the 2-OHE₁:16α-OHE₁, and a 3.3-fold increase in the E₃:16α-OHE1 ratios. These data validate a rapid cell culture-based mechanistic approach to prioritize efficacious herbal medicinal products for long-term animal studies and future clinical trials on ER+ clinical breast cancer.
Keywords: breast carcinoma; Chinese herb; estradiol metabolism.