Molecular characterisation of aromatase inhibitor-resistant advanced breast cancer: the phenotypic effect of ESR1 mutations

Br J Cancer. 2019 Jan;120(2):247-255. doi: 10.1038/s41416-018-0345-x. Epub 2018 Dec 19.


Background: Several thousand breast cancer patients develop resistance to aromatase inhibitors (AIs) each year in the UK. Rational treatment requires an improved molecular characterisation of resistant disease.

Materials and methods: The mutational landscape of 198 regions in 16 key breast cancer genes and RNA expression of 209 genes covering key pathways was evaluated in paired biopsies before AI treatment and at progression on AI from 48 patients. Validity of findings was assessed in another five ESR1-mutated tumours progressing on AI.

Results: Eighty-nine mutations were identified in 41 matched pairs (PIK3CA in 27%; CDH1 in 20%). ESR1 (n = 5), ERBB2 (n = 1) and MAP2K4 (n = 1) had mutations in the secondary sample only. There was very high heterogeneity in gene expression between AI-resistant tumours with few patterns apparent. However, in the ESR1-mutated AI-resistant tumours, expression of four classical oestrogen-regulated genes (ERGs) was sevenfold higher than in ESR1 wild-type tumours, a finding confirmed in the second set of ESR1-mutated tumours. In ESR1 wild-type AI-resistant tumours ERG expression remained suppressed and was uncoupled from the recovery seen in proliferation.

Conclusions: Major genotypic and phenotypic heterogeneity exists between AI-resistant disease. ESR1 mutations appear to drive oestrogen-regulated processes in resistant tumours.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antigens, CD / genetics
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / administration & dosage*
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / adverse effects
  • Breast / metabolism
  • Breast / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cadherins / genetics
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / genetics*
  • Estrogens / genetics
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Kinase 4 / genetics
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics


  • Antigens, CD
  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • CDH1 protein, human
  • Cadherins
  • ESR1 protein, human
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Estrogens
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • PIK3CA protein, human
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • MAP Kinase Kinase 4
  • MAP2K4 protein, human