Lack of cross-resistance between non-steroidal and steroidal aromatase inhibitors in breast cancer patients: the potential role of the adipokine leptin

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2021 Sep 23. doi: 10.1007/s10549-021-06399-x. Online ahead of print.


Purpose: The aromatase inactivator exemestane may cause clinical disease stabilization following progression on non-steroidal aromatase inhibitors like letrozole in patients with metastatic breast cancer, indicating that additional therapeutic effects, not necessarily related to estrogen-suppression, may be involved in this well-known "lack of cross-resistance".

Methods: Postmenopausal women with ER positive, HER-2 negative, locally advanced breast cancer were enrolled in the NEOLETEXE-trial and randomized to sequential treatment starting with either letrozole (2.5 mg o.d.) or exemestane (25 mg o.d.) followed by the alternative aromatase inhibitor. Serum levels of 54 cytokines, including 12 adipokines were assessed using Luminex xMAP technology (multiple ELISA).

Results: Serum levels of leptin were significantly decreased during treatment with exemestane (p < 0.001), regardless whether exemestane was given as first or second neoadjuvant therapy. In contrast, letrozole caused a non-significant increase in serum leptin levels in vivo.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest an additional and direct effect of exemestane on CYP-19 (aromatase) synthesis presumably due to effects on the CYP19 promoter use that is not present during therapy with the non-steroidal aromatase inhibitor letrozole. Our findings provide new insights into the influence of clinically important aromatase inhibitors on cytokine levels in vivo that contribute to the understanding of the clinically observed lack of cross-resistance between non-steroidal and steroidal aromatase inhibitors in breast cancer patients.

Trial registration: Registered on March 23rd 2015 in the National trial database of Norway (Registration number: REK-SØ-84-2015).

Keywords: Adipokine; Aromatase inhibitor; Breast cancer; Exemestane; Leptin; Letrozole.