Fatty acid oxidation and autophagy promote endoxifen resistance and counter the effect of AKT inhibition in ER-positive breast cancer cells

J Mol Cell Biol. 2021 Sep 11;13(6):433-444. doi: 10.1093/jmcb/mjab018.


Tamoxifen (TAM) is the first-line endocrine therapy for estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer (BC). However, acquired resistance occurs in ∼50% cases. Meanwhile, although the PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway is a viable target for treatment of endocrine therapy-refractory patients, complex signaling feedback loops exist, which can counter the effectiveness of inhibitors of this pathway. Here, we analyzed signaling pathways and metabolism in ER+ MCF7 BC cell line and their TAM-resistant derivatives that are co-resistant to endoxifen using immunoblotting, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, and the Agilent Seahorse XF Analyzer. We found that activation of AKT and the energy-sensing kinase AMPK was increased in TAM and endoxifen-resistant cells. Furthermore, ERRα/PGC-1β and their target genes MCAD and CPT-1 were increased and regulated by AMPK, which coincided with increased fatty acid oxidation (FAO) and autophagy in TAM-resistant cells. Inhibition of AKT feedback-activates AMPK and ERRα/PGC-1β-MCAD/CPT-1 with a consequent increase in FAO and autophagy that counters the therapeutic effect of endoxifen and AKT inhibitors. Therefore, our results indicate increased activation of AKT and AMPK with metabolic reprogramming and increased autophagy in TAM-resistant cells. Simultaneous inhibition of AKT and FAO/autophagy is necessary to fully sensitize resistant cells to endoxifen.

Keywords: AKT; AMPK; autophagy; endoxifen; fatty acid oxidation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / pharmacology
  • Autophagy / drug effects
  • Autophagy / physiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Oxidation-Reduction / drug effects
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Tamoxifen / analogs & derivatives*
  • Tamoxifen / pharmacology


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal
  • ERRalpha estrogen-related receptor
  • Fatty Acids
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Tamoxifen
  • 4-hydroxy-N-desmethyltamoxifen
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt