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.
Giorgio Secreto, Alessandro Girombelli and Vittorio Krogh
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.