Obesity enhances nongenomic estrogen receptor crosstalk with the PI3K/Akt and MAPK pathways to promote in vitro measures of breast cancer progression

Breast Cancer Res. 2013;15(4):R59. doi: 10.1186/bcr3453.


Introduction: Epidemiological and clinical studies indicate that obesity is associated with a worse postmenopausal breast cancer prognosis and an increased risk of endocrine therapy resistance. However, the mechanisms mediating these effects remain poorly understood. Here we investigate the molecular pathways by which obesity-associated circulating factors in the blood enhance estrogen receptor alpha (ERα) positive breast cancer cell viability and growth.

Methods: Blood serum was collected from postmenopausal breast cancer patients and pooled by body mass index (BMI) category (Control: 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m²; Obese: ≥30.0 kg/m²). The effects of patient sera on MCF-7 and T47D breast cancer cell viability and growth were examined by MTT and colony formation assays, respectively. Insulin-like growth factor receptor 1(IGF-1R), Akt, and ERK1/2 activation and genomic ERα activity were assessed to determine their possible contribution to obese patient sera-induced cell viability and growth. To further define the relative contribution of these signaling pathways, cells grown in patient sera were treated with various combinations of ERα, PI3K/Akt and MAPK targeted therapies. Comparisons between cells exposed to different experimental conditions were made using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) and Student's t test.

Results: Cells grown in media supplemented with obese patient sera displayed greater cell viability and growth as well as IGF-1R, Akt and ERK1/2 activation relative to control sera. Despite the lack of a significant difference in genomic ERα activity following growth in obese versus control patient sera, we observed a dramatic reduction in cell viability and growth after concurrent inhibition of the ERα and PI3K/Akt signaling pathways. Further, we demonstrated that ERα inhibition was sufficient to attenuate obese serum-induced Akt and ERK1/2 activation. Together, these data suggest that obesity promotes greater ERα positive breast cancer cell viability and growth through enhanced crosstalk between nongenomic ERα signaling and the PI3K/Akt and MAPK pathways.

Conclusions: Circulating factors in the serum of obese postmenopausal women stimulate ERα positive breast cancer cell viability and growth by facilitating non-genomic ERα crosstalk with the PI3K/Akt and MAPK signaling pathways. These findings provide valuable insight into one mechanism by which obesity may promote ERα positive postmenopausal breast cancer progression and endocrine therapy resistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / complications*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Disease Progression
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System*
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / blood
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism*
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism*
  • Receptor Cross-Talk*
  • Receptor, IGF Type 1 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Estrogen / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism*
  • Risk Factors


  • Biomarkers
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Receptor, IGF Type 1
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt