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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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A Agrawal, E Gutteridge, J M W Gee, R I Nicholson, and J F R Robertson

Studies of cell models and profiling of clinical breast cancer material to reveal the mechanisms of resistance to anti-oestrogen therapy, and to tamoxifen in particular, have reported that this phenomenon can be associated with increased expression and signalling through erbB Type 1 growth factor receptors, notably the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and HER2. Further molecular studies have revealed an intricate interlinking between such growth factor receptor pathways and oestrogen receptor (ER) signalling. Inhibition of receptor tyrosine kinase activity involved in the EGFR signalling cascade forms the basis for the use of EGFR specific tyrosine kinase inhibitors exemplified by gefitinib (ZD1839, Iressa) and erlotinib (OSI-774, Tarceva). Such agents have proved promising in pre-clinical studies and are currently in clinical trials in breast cancer, where gefitinib has been studied more extensively to date. Here, we present an overview of the current development of gefitinib in clinical breast cancer. This includes results from our clinical breast cancer trial 1839IL/0057 that demonstrate the efficacy of gefitinib within ER-positive, tamoxifen-resistant patients with locally advanced/metastatic disease, where parallel decreases in EGFR signal transduction and the Ki67 (MIB1) proliferation marker can be detected as predicted from model system studies. We also consider trials examining combination treatment with gefitinib and anti-hormonal strategies that will begin to address the clinically important question of whether gefitinib can delay/prevent onset of anti-hormone resistance.

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R I Nicholson, R A McClelland, J F Robertson, and J M Gee

Multiple lines of evidence implicate steroid hormone and growth factor cross-talk as a modulator of endocrine response in breast cancer and that aberrations in growth factor signaling pathways are a common element in the endocrine resistant phenotype. Delineation of these relationships is thus an important diagnostic goal in cancer research, while the targeting of aberrant growth factor signaling holds the promise of improving therapeutic response rates.

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R I Nicholson, J M W Gee, M E Harper, IO Ellis, P Willsher, and J F R Robertson


A common phenotypic consequence of the genetic changes that occur in breast cancer is a loss of steroid hormone growth sensitivity, a feature manifested clinically by primary or acquired resistance to antihormones. Although it appears that the absence of steroid receptor machinery determines the failure of oestrogen receptor (ER) negative tumours to respond to endocrine therapies, the erbB signalling pathway seems far from redundant in these tumours and in vivo evidence suggests that elevated epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and c-erbB-2 proteins are fundamental elements in ER negative disease growth control. In contrast, neither diminished ER nor elevated EGFR expression appears to be essential in determining any primary endocrine insensitivity demonstrated by ER positive tumours, although elevated expression of additional erbB pathway components (e.g. transforming growth factor-α, Fos, Myc and c-erbB-2 protein) may be important. However, none of these factors appears to direct endocrine unresponsive, ER positive cell proliferation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that selective outgrowth of endocrine unresponsive, EGFR membrane positive/ER negative cells constitutes a major event in ER positive tumours during their progression towards endocrine resistance.

Endocrine-Related Cancer (1997) 4 297-305

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J M Gee, J F Robertson, E Gutteridge, I O Ellis, S E Pinder, M Rubini, and R I Nicholson

Breast cancer models of acquired tamoxifen resistance, oestrogen receptor (ER)+ /ER de novo resistance and gene transfer studies cumulatively demonstrate the increased importance of growth factor receptor signalling, notably the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)/HER2, in tamoxifen resistance. Our recent in vitro studies also suggest that EGFR signalling productively cross-talks with insulin-like growth factor receptor (IGF-1R) and, where present, activates ER on key AF-1 serine residues to facilitate acquired tamoxifen-resistant growth. This paper presents our immunohistochemical evidence that EGFR/HER2 signalling (i.e. transforming growth factor (TGF)α, EGFR and HER2 expression; phosphorylation of EGFR, HER2 and ERK1/2 MAP kinase) is also prominent in clinical de novo resistant and modestly increased in acquired tamoxifen-resistant states, suggesting that anti-EGFR/HER2 strategies may prove valuable treatments. Primary breast cancer samples employed were obtained for (1) patients subsequently treated with tamoxifen for advanced disease where endocrine response and survival data were available and (2) ER+ elderly patients during tamoxifen response and relapse. We also present our clinical immunohistochemical findings that IGF-1R expression, its phosphorylation on tyrosine 1316, and also phosphorylation on serine 118 of ER are not only prominent in ER+ tamoxifen-responsive disease, but are also detectable in ER+ de novo and acquired tamoxifen-resistant breast cancer, where there is evidence of EGFR/ER cross-talk. Our data suggest that agents to deplete effectively ER or IGF-1R signalling may be of value in treating ER+ de novo/acquired tamoxifen resistance in addition to tamoxifen-responsive disease in vivo. IGF-1R inhibitors may also prove valuable in ER patients, since considerable IGF-1R signalling activity was apparent within ~50% of such tumours.

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J M W Gee, A Howell, W J Gullick, C C Benz, R L Sutherland, R J Santen, L-A Martin, F Ciardiello, W R Miller, M Dowsett, P Barrett-Lee, J F R Robertson, S R Johnston, H E Jones, A E Wakeling, R Duncan, and R I Nicholson

Anti-hormones (notably tamoxifen), chemotherapy and modern radiotherapeutic approaches are invaluable in the management of breast cancer, and collectively have contributed substantially to the improved survival in this disease. Moreover, there is promise that these successes will continue with the emergence of other endocrine agents (for example, aromatase inhibitors and pure anti-oestrogens). However, de novo and acquired resistance comprises a significant problem with all treatment approaches examined to date. This Workshop aimed to evaluate the contribution made by growth factor signalling pathways in the various resistant states, primarily focusing on resistance to anti-hormonal strategies and spanning experimental models and, where possible, clinical breast cancer data. The successes and limitations of therapeutic targeting of these pathways with various signal transduction inhibitors (STIs) were evaluated in model systems and from emerging clinical trials (including epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors such as gefitinib). It was concluded that growth factor signalling is an important contributor in the development of endocrine resistance in breast cancer and that use of STIs provides a promising therapeutic strategy for this disease. However, the cancer cell is clearly able to harness alternative growth factor signalling pathways for growth and cell survival in the presence of STI monotherapy and, as a consequence, the efficacy of STIs is likely to be limited by the acquisition of resistance. A number of strategies were proposed from studies in model systems that appeared to enhance anti-tumour actions of existing STI monotherapy, notably including combination therapies targeting multiple pathways. With the increased availability of diverse STIs and improved drug delivery, there is much hope that the more complex therapeutic strategies proposed may ultimately be achievable in clinical practice.