[Estrogens, Cathepsin D and Metastasis in Cancers of the Breast and Ovary: Invasion or Proliferation?]

C R Seances Soc Biol Fil. 1998;192(2):241-51.
[Article in French]


This short review presents the current stage of knowledge of our laboratory on the mechanism of action of cathepsin D and estrogens on tumor progression, mostly based on studies of human breast and ovarian cancer cell lines. Cathepsin D (cath-D) overexpression in breast cancer cells is associated with increased risk of metastasis in patients as confirmed by a recent meta-analysis of clinical studies on node negative breast cancer patients. Transfection of a human cDNA cath-D expression vector increases the metastatic potential of a rat tumor cells line when intravenously injected into nude mice. The mechanism of cath-D induced metastasis seems to require maturation of the pro-enzyme, mostly in large acidic compartments identified as phagosomes. Cath-D is mitogenic in different cell types, and different substrates (growth inhibitors, precursors of growth factor etc.) are proposed to mediate this activity. A mitogenic effect of the pro-enzyme on transmembrane receptor is not totally excluded. The mitogenic activity of estrogens in several estrogen receptor positive breast and ovarian cancer cell lines is well established in our and other laboratories. By contrast the role of estrogens during early steps of metastasis, involving cell invasion through the basement membrane and cell motility is more controversial. The motility of several estrogen receptor (ER) positive breast (MCF7, T47D) and ovarian (BG-1, SKOV3, PEO4) cancer cell lines were studied in our laboratory using a modified Boyden chamber assay. We observed, in all cases, estradiol-induced inhibition of cancer cell invasion and motility. A similar inhibitory effect of estradiol was found when the wild-type ER was stably transfected in the ER-negative MDA-MB231 cells and 3Y1-Ad12 cancer cells. The mechanism of this inhibitory effect is unknown. In ovarian cancer, however it may involve intermediary proteins such as fibulin-1, an extracellular matrix protein that strongly interacts with fibronectin and which is induced by estrogen and secreted by ovarian cancer cells. In breast cancer cells other estrogen regulated proteins may be involved. We conclude that estrogens in ER-positive breast and ovarian cancers have a dual effect, since they stimulate tumor growth but inhibit invasion and motility. This may be consistent with the good initial prognostic value of ER-positive breast cancers compared to ER negative breast cancers noted in several clinical studies, and with the better prognosis of breast cancer occurring after a prolonged treatment of menopause by estrogen as described by the collaborative group on hormonal factors in breast cancer.

Publication types

  • English Abstract
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cathepsin D / analysis
  • Cathepsin D / genetics
  • Cell Division
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Estrogen / analysis
  • Receptors, Estrogen / biosynthesis
  • Receptors, Estrogen / genetics


  • Estrogens
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Cathepsin D