Several doping agents, such as anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) and peptide hormones like insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), are employed without considering the potential deleterious effects that they can cause. In addition, androgens are used in postmenopausal women as replacement therapy. However, there are no clear guidelines regarding the optimal therapeutic doses of androgens or long-term safety data. In this study we aimed to determine if two commonly used AAS, nandrolone and stanozolol, alone or in combination with IGF-I, could activate signaling involved in breast cancer cell proliferation. Using a human breast cancer cell line, MCF-7, as an experimental model we found that both nandrolone and stanozolol caused a dose-dependent induction of aromatase expression and, consequently, estradiol production. Moreover, when nandrolone and stanozolol were combined with IGF-I, higher induction in aromatase expression was observed. This increase involved phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K)/AKT and phospholipase C (PLC)/protein kinase C (PKC), which are part of IGF-I transductional pathways. Specifically, both AAS were able to activate membrane rapid signaling involving IGF-I receptor, extracellular regulated protein kinases 1/2 (ERK1/2) and AKT, after binding to estrogen receptor (ER), as confirmed by the ability of the ER antagonist ICI182, 780 to block such activation. The estrogenic activity of nandrolone and stanozolol was further confirmed by their capacity to induce the expression of the ER-regulated gene, CCND1 encoding for the cell cycle regulator cyclin D1, which represents a key protein for the control of breast cancer cell proliferation. In fact, when nandrolone and stanozolol were combined with IGF-I, they increased cell proliferation to levels higher than those elicited by the single factors. Taken together these data clearly indicate that the use of high doses of AAS, as occurs in doping practice, may increase the risk of breast cancer. This potential risk is higher when AAS are used in association with IGF-I. To our knowledge this is the first report directly associating AAS with this type of cancer.
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