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Tim Byers and Rebecca L Sedjo

Carrying excess body fat is a leading cause of cancer. Epidemiologic evidence gives strong clues about the mechanisms that link excess adiposity to risk for several cancer sites. For postmenopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer, the hyper-estrogenic state that is induced by excess body fatness is the likely cause. For esophageal cancer and gallbladder cancer, chronic local inflammation induced by acid reflux and gallstones is the likely cause, and for liver cancer, local inflammation induced by hepatic fatty infiltration is the likely cause. However, for several other cancers known to be associated with excess adiposity, including cancers of the colon, pancreas, ovary, kidney, and prostate, specific causes are not known. Possible candidates include elevated systemic or local tissue inflammation induced by adiposity and effects of the elevated levels of leptin, insulin, IGFs, and depressed immune function that are seen with excess adiposity. There is growing evidence that intentional weight loss not only reduces circulating levels of cancer-associated factors but that it also reduces cancer incidence and recurrence. Better research is needed to understand the mechanisms that link excess body fat to cancer risk as well as to understand the amount of weight loss needed for substantial cancer risk reduction. Finally, as we develop better understanding of the mediators of the effects of excess body fatness on cancer risk, we should identify pharmacologic interventions that target those mediators so that they can be used to complement weight loss in order to reduce cancer risk.

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W Yue, R J Santen, J P Wang, C J Hamilton, and L M Demers

In situ aromatization and enhanced uptake of estradiol from plasma are two potential mechanisms for maintenance of high concentrations of estradiol found in breast tumors of postmenopausal patients. To test the relative importance of these two mechanisms, a nude mouse model was established by inoculating aromatase (A+) and/or sham (A-) transfected MCF-7 cells into ovariectomized mice. Postmenopausal hormonal status was simulated by providing estradiol Silastic implants which clamped plasma estradiol levels at 5-20 pg/ml. We demonstrated that in situ aromatization rather than the uptake mechanism is the key determinant of tumor estradiol levels and tumor growth rate under conditions reflecting the postmenopausal state. The importance of intratumoral aromatase was also suggested by the findings that long-term estrogen deprivation increases sensitivity to estradiol and enhances aromatase activity in MCF-7 cells. The results of our in vivo and in vitro studies suggest that complete blockade of in situ aromatization in the breast would provide added benefit to postmenopausal breast cancer patients, especially those who relapse from antiestrogen therapy.

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N Harada, S I Honda, and O Hatano

The effects of two steroidal (4-hydroxyandrostenedione and atamestane) and three non-steroidal (fadrozole, vorozole, and pentrozole) aromatase inhibitors on the levels of aromatase mRNA and protein were examined in vitro and in vivo. Immunocytochemistry revealed increased quantities of immunoreactive aromatase in human choriocarcinoma-derived JEG-3 cells in response to pretreatment with the non-steroidal inhibitors. To elucidate this effect in detail, aromatase protein in JEG-3 cells after treatment with various inhibitors was quantified using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). A time-dependent increase in aromatase protein in the cells was observed with all the aromatase inhibitors except 4-hydroxyandrostenedione, whereas aromatase mRNA levels in the cells remained unchanged during the inhibitor treatment. The three non-steroidal agents caused an approximately fourfold increase in aromatase protein in the cells 24 h after the treatment, as compared with untreated controls. The increase in aromatase protein in the cells was not blocked by treatment with cycloheximide, an inhibitor of protein synthesis. The inhibitors also appeared to block the rapid degradation observed in JEG-3 cells after induction by forskolin. In vivo, daily injection of the inhibitors into adult female mice caused increases in levels of both aromatase mRNA and protein in the ovary. The increase in aromatase mRNA in this in vivo study could be explained by an increase in gonadotropin concentrations in response to decreased plasma concentrations of estrogens. In conclusion, we suggest that aromatase inhibitors increase aromatase protein through stabilization and reduced protein turnover.

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Sisi He, Liqian Ma, Amy E Baek, Anna Vardanyan, Varsha Vembar, Joy J Chen, Adam T Nelson, Joanna E Burdette, and Erik R Nelson

There is an urgent need for more effective strategies to treat ovarian cancer. Elevated cholesterol levels are associated with a decreased progression-free survival time (PFS) while statins are protective. 27-Hydroxycholesterol (27HC), a primary metabolite of cholesterol, has been shown to modulate the activities of the estrogen receptors (ERs) and liver x receptors (LXRs) providing a potential mechanistic link between cholesterol and ovarian cancer progression. We found that high expression of CYP27A1, the enzyme responsible for the synthesis of 27HC, was associated with decreased PFS, while high expression of CYP7B1, responsible for 27HC catabolism, was associated with increased PFS. However, 27HC decreased the cellular proliferation of various ovarian cancer cell lines in an LXR-dependent manner. Intriguingly, ID8 grafts were unable to effectively establish in CYP27A1−/− mice, indicating involvement of the host environment. Tumors from mice treated with 27HC had altered myeloid cell composition, and cells from the marrow stem cell lineage were found to be responsible for the effects in CYP27A1−/− mice. While inhibition of CYP27A1 or immune checkpoint did not significantly alter tumor size, their combination did, thereby highlighting this axis as a therapeutic target.

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Jaesung (Peter) Choi, Reena Desai, Yu Zheng, Mu Yao, Qihan Dong, Geoff Watson, David J Handelsman, and Ulla Simanainen

Haploinsufficient inactivating phosphatase and tensin homolog (Pten) mutations cause Cowden syndrome, an autosomal dominant risk genotype for hormone dependent reproductive cancers. As androgen actions mediated via the androgen receptor (AR) supports uterine growth and may modify uterine cancer risk, we hypothesized that a functional AR may increase PTEN inactivation induced uterine cancer. To test the hypothesis, we compared the PTEN knockout (PTENKO) induced uterine pathology in heterozygous PTENKO and combined heterozygous PTEN and complete AR knockout (PTENARKO) female mice. PTENKO induced uterine pathology was significantly reduced by AR inactivation with severe macroscopic uterine pathology present in 21% of PTENARKO vs 46% of PTENKO at a median age of 45 weeks. This could be due to reduced stroma ERα expression in PTENARKO compared to PTENKO uterus, while AR inactivation did not modify PTEN or P-AKT levels. Unexpectedly, while progesterone (P4) is assumed protective in uterine cancers, serum P4 was significantly higher in PTENKO females compared to WT, ARKO, and PTENARKO females consistent with more corpora lutea in PTENKO ovaries. Serum testosterone and ovarian estradiol were similar between all females. Hence, our results demonstrated AR inactivation mediated protection against PTENKO induced uterine pathology and suggests a potential role for antiandrogens in uterine cancer prevention and treatment.

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P Feuillan, D Merke, E W Leschek, and G B Cutler Jr

During puberty, estrogen causes breast maturation and growth of the uterine lining in girls, and accelerates linear growth and bone maturation in both boys and girls. Decreasing the biosynthesis of estrogen can attenuate these processes. In 12 girls with the McCune-Albright syndrome (MAS), in which precocious puberty is due to production of estrogen from ovarian cysts, testolactone (40 mg/kg per day) decreased the volume of ovarian cysts, the frequency of menses, and the rates of growth and bone maturation, for periods of 1-4 years. In a 6-month pilot study of 12 children (eight boys; four girls) with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, testolactone, in combination with an antiandrogen (flutamide), a mineralocorticoid (fludrocortisone acetate, Florinef), and a reduced glucocorticoid dose, improved the control of growth and bone maturation compared with conventional therapy. In a 6-year study of 10 boys with familial male precocious puberty, testolactone, in combination with an antiandrogen (spironolactone), decreased rates of growth and bone maturation, and increased predicted adult height. All patients who developed evidence for gonadotropin-dependent puberty were also treated with a GnRH analog. Testolactone had no important adverse effects in any group of patients, although the need for a four-times-daily dosing schedule made compliance difficult for many families. We conclude that suppressing of estrogen with testolactone was effective therapy, and that more potent and specific inhibitors of aromatase could further improve the treatment of these disorders.

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F Labrie

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed and the second cause of cancer death in women, thus making breast cancer a most feared disease. Since breast cancer metastasizes early and it is unlikely that improvements in the treatment of metastatic disease could permit a cure in most cases in the foreseeable future, it is clear that prevention is essential in order practically to eliminate deaths from breast cancer. Tamoxifen is the only selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) currently registered for use in breast cancer prevention; the tamoxifen versus raloxifene study should indicate the efficacy of this compound compared with raloxifene. The recent benefits of aromatase inhibitors over tamoxifen indicate the advantages of a blockade of estrogens more complete than the one achieved with tamoxifen, a SERM having some estrogenic activity in the mammary gland and an even higher estrogenic action in the uterus. However, it is unlikely that the general estrogen ablation achieved with aromatase inhibitors will be acceptable for the long-term use required for prevention. It is thus important to develop SERMs with highly potent and pure antagonistic activity in the mammary gland and uterus while possessing estrogen-like activity in tissues of particular importance for women’s health, namely the bones and the cardiovascular system. However, it is expected that a SERM alone will not meet all the requirements of women’s health at the postmenopause when ovarian estrogen secretion has ceased and peripheral formation of androgens and estrogens from DHEA by intracrine mechanisms is decreased by 60% or more. One possibility is to combine a SERM with DHEA, a precursor of sex steroids that permits, somewhat like SERMs, tissue-specific formation of androgens and/or estrogens according to the level of expression of the steroidogenic and steroid-inactivating enzymes. DHEA could thus compensate for the important loss of androgens that accompanies aging and could also permit sex steroid formation and action in the brain while breast cancer prevention would be achieved by the SERM.

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Giorgio Secreto, Alessandro Girombelli, and Vittorio Krogh

The aim of this review is to highlight the pivotal role of androgen excess in the development of breast cancer. Available evidence suggests that testosterone controls breast epithelial growth through a balanced interaction between its two active metabolites: cell proliferation is promoted by estradiol while it is inhibited by dihydrotestosterone. A chronic overproduction of testosterone (e.g. ovarian stromal hyperplasia) results in an increased estrogen production and cell proliferation that are no longer counterbalanced by dihydrotestosterone. This shift in the androgen/estrogen balance partakes in the genesis of ER-positive tumors. The mammary gland is a modified apocrine gland, a fact rarely considered in breast carcinogenesis. When stimulated by androgens, apocrine cells synthesize epidermal growth factor (EGF) that triggers the ErbB family receptors. These include the EGF receptor and the human epithelial growth factor 2, both well known for stimulating cellular proliferation. As a result, an excessive production of androgens is capable of directly stimulating growth in apocrine and apocrine-like tumors, a subset of ER-negative/AR-positive tumors. The key role of androgen excess in the genesis of different subtypes of breast cancer has significant clinical implications for both treatment and prevention. Our belief stems from a thorough analysis of the literature, where an abundance of evidence is present to justify a clinical trial that would investigate the effectiveness of treating the underlying excessive androgen production.

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Giorgio Secreto, Paola Muti, Milena Sant, Elisabetta Meneghini, and Vittorio Krogh

Five years of adjuvant therapy with anti-estrogens reduce the incidence of disease progression by about 50% in estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer patients, but late relapse can still occur after anti-estrogens have been discontinued. In these patients, excessive androgen production may account for renewed excessive estrogen formation and increased risks of late relapse. In the 50% of patients who do not benefit with anti-estrogens, the effect of therapy is limited by de novo or acquired resistance to treatment. Androgen receptor and epidermal growth factor receptor overexpression are recognized mechanisms of endocrine resistance suggesting the involvement of androgens as activators of the androgen receptor pathway and as stimulators of epidermal growth factor synthesis and function. Data from a series of prospective studies on operable breast cancer patients, showing high serum testosterone levels are associated to increased risk of recurrence, provide further support to a role for androgens in breast cancer progression. According to the above reported evidence, we proposed to counteract excessive androgen production in the adjuvant setting of estrogen receptor-positive patients and suggested selecting postmenopausal patients with elevated levels of serum testosterone, marker of ovarian hyperandrogenemia, for adjuvant treatment with a gonadotropins-releasing hormone analogue (medical oophorectomy) in addition to standard therapy with anti-estrogens. The proposed approach provides an attempt of personalized medicine that needs to be further investigated in clinical trials.

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A C-M Chang, D A Jellinek, and R R Reddel

Stanniocalcin (STC) is a glycoprotein hormone that is secreted by the corpuscle of Stannius, an endocrine gland of bony fish, and is involved in calcium and phosphate homeostasis. The related mammalian proteins, STC1 and STC2, are expressed in a wide variety of tissues. The ovaries have the highest level of STC1, and this increases during pregnancy and lactation. STC1 is present in breast ductal epithelium, and its expression is induced by BRCA1, a tumor suppressor gene that has an important role in breast and ovarian cancer. The expression of STC2 is induced by estrogen, and there is a positive correlation between the level of expression of estrogen receptor and expression of both STC1 and STC2 in breast cancer. This article reviews the data currently available regarding the mammalian STCs, and discusses the roles they may play in normal physiology and in breast and other cancers.