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K L Cheung, R Owers, and J F R Robertson

The pure anti-oestrogen fulvestrant has now been licensed for use in advanced breast cancer which has progressed on an anti-oestrogen. Optimal sequencing of various endocrine agents becomes very important in the therapeutic strategy. We report our experience of further endocrine response with another endocrine agent after prior fulvestrant treatment. Among all patients with advanced breast cancer who had been entered into five phase II/III trials using fulvestrant as first- to ninth-line endocrine therapy in our Unit since 1993, 54 patients who fulfilled the following criteria were studied for their subsequent endocrine response: (i) oestrogen receptor positive or unknown; (ii) having been on a subsequent endocrine therapy for ≥6 months unless the disease progressed before; and (iii) with disease assessable for response according to International Union Against Cancer criteria. Eleven patients had received an aromatase inhibitor prior to fulvestrant, which resulted in five CBs (clinical benefit = objective remission/stable disease (SD)) for ≥6 months). Twenty-eight patients achieved CB on fulvestrant. They went on subsequent endocrine therapy with two partial responses, 11 SDs and 15 PDs (progressive disease) at 6 months. The median survival from starting fulvestrant and subsequent endocrine therapy was respectively 46.6 and 18.2 months. Among the remaining 26 patients who progressed at 6 months on fulvestrant, there were three SDs and 23 PDs at 6 months on subsequent endocrine therapy. The median survival from starting fulvestrant and subsequent endocrine therapy was respectively 12.5 and 9.3 months. Of all these 54 patients, 30% (n = 16) therefore achieved CB using another (second- to tenth-line) endocrine agent (anastrozole = 26; tamoxifen = 12; megestrol acetate = 11; others = 5). It would thus appear that further endocrine response can be induced in a reasonable proportion of patients after failing fulvestrant.

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Anthony Howell

For more than 30 years, tamoxifen has been the drug of choice in treating patients with oestrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast tumours. However, research has endeavoured to develop agents that match and improve the clinical efficacy of tamoxifen, but lack its partial agonist effects. The first ‘pure’ oestrogen antagonist was developed in 1987; from this, an even more potent derivative was developed for clinical use, known as fulvestrant (ICI 182,780, ‘Faslodex’). Mechanistic studies have shown that fulvestrant possesses high ER-binding affinity and has multiple effects on ER signalling: it blocks dimerisation and nuclear localisation of the ER, reduces cellular levels of ER and blocks ER-mediated gene transcription. Unlike anti-oestrogens chemically related to tamoxifen, fulvestrant also helps circumvent resistance to tamoxifen. There are extensive data to support the lack of partial agonist effects of fulvestrant and, importantly, its lack of cross-resistance with tamoxifen. In phase III studies in patients with locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer, fulvestrant was at least as effective as anastrozole in patients with tamoxifen-resistant tumours, was effective in the first-line setting and was also well tolerated. These data are supported by experience from the compassionate use of fulvestrant in more heavily pretreated patients. Further studies are now underway to determine the best strategy for sequencing oestrogen endocrine therapies and to optimise dosing regimens offulvestrant. At present, and for the foreseeable future, fulvestrant is the only oestrogen antagonist with no agonistic effects licensed for the treatment of advanced breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Other similar oestrogen antagonists are undergoing research and development, with a few currently being evaluated in phase II trials.

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C Morris and A Wakeling

Since its introduction more than 30 years ago, tamoxifen has been the most widely used endocrine therapy for the treatment of women with advanced breast cancer. More recently, a number of alternative endocrine treatments have been developed, including several selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), aromatase inhibitors (AIs) and, most recently, fulvestrant ('Faslodex'). Fulvestrant is an estrogen receptor (ER) antagonist, which, unlike the SERMs, has no known agonist (estrogenic) effect and downregulates the ER protein. Tamoxifen is effective and well tolerated, although the non-steroidal AIs, anastrozole and letrozole, are more effective treatments for advanced disease than tamoxifen. Fulvestrant has recently gained US Food and Drug Administration approval for the treatment of hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer in postmenopausal women with disease progression following antiestrogen therapy. In two global phase III clinical trials fulvestrant was at least as effective and as equally well tolerated as anastrozole for the treatment of postmenopausal women with advanced and metastatic breast cancer. In a retrospective analysis of the combined data from these trials, mean duration of response was significantly greater for fulvestrant compared with anastrozole. These new hormonal treatments expand the choice of endocrine therapy for women with advanced breast cancer and offer new options for sequencing and combining treatments.

Free access

Carol A Lange and Douglas Yee

The majority (∼70%) of breast cancers are steroid hormone receptor (SR) positive at the time of diagnosis. Endocrine therapies that target estrogen receptor α (ERα) action (tamoxifen, toremifene, fulvestrant) or estrogen synthesis (aromatase inhibitors: letrozole, anastrozole, exemestane; or ovarian suppression) are a clinical mainstay. However, up to 50% of SR+ breast cancers exhibit de novo or acquired resistance to these clinical interventions. Mechanisms of resistance to endocrine therapies often include upregulation and/or activation of signal transduction pathways that input to cell cycle regulation. Cyclin D1, the regulatory subunit of cyclin-dependent protein kinases four and six (CDK4/6) serves as a convergence point for multiple signaling pathways. In a recent paper entitled ‘Therapeutically Activating Retinoblastoma (RB): Reestablishing Cell Cycle Control in Endocrine Therapy-Resistant Breast Cancer’, Thangavel et al. reported maintenance of cyclin D1 expression and RB phosphorylation in the face of ER ablation in multiple breast cancer cell line models of endocrine resistance. RB-dysfunction defined a unique gene signature that was associated with luminal B-type breast cancer and predictive of poor response to endocrine therapies. Notably, a new CDK4/6 inhibitor (PD-0332991) was capable of inducing growth arrest by a mechanism that was most consistent with cellular senescence. In this review, these findings are discussed in the context of SRs as important mediators of cell cycle progression, and the frequent loss of cell cycle checkpoint control that typifies breast cancer progression. These studies provide renewed hope of effectively stabilizing endocrine-resistant breast cancers using available complementary (to endocrine-based therapies) cytostatic agents in the form of CDK4/6 inhibitors.

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Stephen Hiscox, Nicola J Jordan, Wen Jiang, Maureen Harper, Richard McClelland, Chris Smith, and Robert I Nicholson

Our previous investigations using cell models of tamoxifen resistance have shown that the acquisition of an endocrine-insensitive state is accompanied by an invasive in vitro phenotype. In this study, we wished to determine whether this was specifically related to partial oestrogen receptor agonists or whether similar phenomena arise with the newer ‘pure’ anti-oestrogens, exemplified by fulvestrant. Our data demonstrate that the development of fulvestrant resistance in two breast cancer cell lines, MCF7 and T47D, is accompanied by an augmented migratory and invasive phenotype in vitro and overexpression of the HGF/SF receptor, c-Met. Importantly, upregulated c-Met expression in these cells facilitates their stimulation by HGF/SF-secreting stromal fibroblasts, leading to the activation of Src, Akt and ERK1/2 and a profound enhancement of their aggressive phenotype in vitro. These effects could be specifically attributable to activation of the c-Met receptor since the inclusion of neutralising antibodies to c-Met, or siRNA-mediated knockdown of c-Met expression, suppressed both invasion and migration stimulated by either exogenous HGF/SF, fibroblast-conditioned medium or following co-culture with fibroblast cells. Together, these in vitro data suggest that the development of fulvestrant resistance in vivo may confer a metastatic advantage to the cells by allowing their migratory and invasive behaviour to be augmented by surrounding stromal cells.

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Penn Muluhngwi and Carolyn M Klinge

Therapies targeting estrogen receptor alpha (ERα), including selective ER modulators such as tamoxifen, selective ER downregulators such as fulvestrant (ICI 182 780), and aromatase inhibitors such as letrozole, are successfully used in treating breast cancer patients whose initial tumor expresses ERα. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of endocrine therapies is limited by acquired resistance. The role of microRNAs (miRNAs) in the progression of endocrine-resistant breast cancer is of keen interest in developing biomarkers and therapies to counter metastatic disease. This review focuses on miRNAs implicated as disruptors of antiestrogen therapies, their bona fide gene targets and associated pathways promoting endocrine resistance.

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Barbara Kuske, Catherine Naughton, Kate Moore, Kenneth G MacLeod, William R Miller, Robert Clarke, Simon P Langdon, and David A Cameron

Hormone-dependent estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer cells may adapt to low estrogen environments such as produced by aromatase inhibitors. In many instances, cells become insensitive to the effects of estrogen but may still retain dependence on ER. We have investigated the expression, function, and activation of ERα in two endocrine-resistant MCF-7 models to identify mechanisms that could contribute to resistance. While MCF-7/LCC1 cells are partially estrogen dependent, MCF-7/LCC9 cells are fully estrogen insensitive and fulvestrant and tamoxifen resistant. In both MCF-7/LCC1 and MCF-7/LCC9 cell lines, high expression of ERα was associated with enhanced binding to the trefoil factor 1 (TFF1) promoter in the absence of estrogen and increased transcription of TFF1 and progesterone receptor. In contrast to the observations derived from hypersensitive and supersensitive models, these cells were truly estrogen independent; nevertheless, removal of ERα by siRNA, or fulvestrant, a specific ER downregulator, inhibited growth indicating dependence on ERα. In the absence of estrogen, neither ERα Ser118 nor Ser167 were phosphorylated as frequently found in other ligand-independent cell line models. Addition of estrogen activated ERα Ser118 in MCF-7 and LCC1 cells but not in LCC9 cells. We suggest that the estrogen-independent growth within these cell lines is accounted for by high levels of ERα expression driving transcription and full estrogen independence explained by lack of ERα activation through Ser118.

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R I Nicholson, I R Hutcheson, S E Hiscox, J M Knowlden, M Giles, D Barrow, and J M W Gee

De novo insensitivity and acquired resistance to the selective oestrogen receptor modulator tamoxifen and the pure anti-oestrogen fulvestrant (faslodex) severely limit their effectiveness in breast cancer patients. This is a major clinical problem, since each year upward of 1 million women are dispensed anti-oestrogenic drugs. In order to investigate the phenomenon of anti-oestrogen resistance and to rapidly screen drugs that target the resistance mechanism(s), we have previously established several in vitro breast cancer models that have acquired resistance to anti-hormones. Such cells commonly develop an ability to proliferate after approximately 3 months of exposure to 4-hydroxytamoxifen or fulvestrant, despite an initial endocrine-responsive (i.e. growth-suppressive) phase. The current paper explores the role that growth factor signalling plays in the transition of oestrogen receptor-positive endocrine-responsive breast cancer cells to anti-oestrogen resistance or insensitivity and how we might, in the future, most effectively use anti-growth factor therapies to treat or delay endocrine-resistant states.

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Nicola Normanno, Massimo Di Maio, Ermelinda De Maio, Antonella De Luca, Andrea de Matteis, Antonio Giordano, and Francesco Perrone

Group-author : on behalf of the NCI-Naples Breast Cancer Group

Tamoxifen has been the mainstay of hormonal therapy in both early and advanced breast cancer patients for approximately three decades. The availability of novel compounds such as aromatase inhibitors (AIs) and fulvestrant, with different mechanism of action, is changing the scenario of endocrine treatment of postmenopausal breast cancer patients. In this review article, we have summarized the current knowledge of the mechanisms of resistance to endocrine therapy, in order to derive information that might be useful for therapeutic intervention. We propose that resistance to endocrine therapy is a progressive, step-wise phenomenon induced by the selective pressure of hormonal agents, which leads breast cancer cells from an estrogen-dependent, responsive to endocrine manipulation phenotype to a non-responsive phenotype, and eventually to an estrogen-independent phenotype. In particular, evidence suggests for each ‘action’ introduced to block estrogen stimulation of breast cancer cells (i.e. treatment with anti-estrogen), there are one or more corresponding ‘reactions’ that tumor cells can use to escape our attempts to block their growth: estrogen hypersensitivity associated with increased transcriptional activity of estrogen receptor α (ERα) and/or increased non-genomic activity of ERα, estrogen supersensitivity, increased growth factor signaling, suppression of ERα expression and finally estrogen independence. Activation of growth factor signaling is involved in each step of this phenomenon, and might ultimately substitute estrogen in sustaining the growth and the survival of breast cancer cells. In this respect, results of pre-clinical and clinical studies with AIs, fulvestrant and signaling inhibitors sustain this hypothesis. More importantly, the knowledge of the mechanisms involved in the resistance of breast cancer cells to endocrine therapy offers potential for novel therapeutic strategies.

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Mitsuyo Matsumoto, Yuri Yamaguchi, Yuko Seino, Atsushi Hatakeyama, Hiroyuki Takei, Hitoshi Niikura, Kiyoshi Ito, Takashi Suzuki, Hironobu Sasano, Nobuo Yaegashi, and Shin-ichi Hayashi

The estrogen pathway plays an important role in the etiology of human endometrial carcinoma (EC). We examined whether estrogen biosynthesis in the tumor microenvironment promotes endometrial cancer. To examine the contribution of stromal cells to estrogen signaling in EC, we used reporter cells stably transfected with the estrogen response element (ERE) fused to the destabilized green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene. In this system, the endometrial cancer stromal cells from several patients activated the ERE of cancer cells to a variable extent. The GFP expression level increased when testosterone, a substrate for aromatase, was added. The effect was variably inhibited by aromatase inhibitors (AIs), although the response to AIs varied among patients. These results suggest that GFP expression is driven by estrogen synthesized by aromatase in the endometrial cancer stromal cells. In a second experiment, we constructed an adenovirus reporter vector containing the same construct as the reporter cells described above, and visualized endogenous ERE activity in primary culture cancer cells from 15 EC specimens. The GFP expression levels varied among the cases, and in most primary tissues, ERE activities were strongly inhibited by a pure anti-estrogen, fulvestrant. Interestingly, a minority of primary tissues in endometrial cancer showed ERE activity independent of the estrogen-ER pathway. These results suggest that AI may have some therapeutic value in EC; however, the hormonal microenvironment must be assessed prior to initiating therapy.