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Keely M McNamara, Nicole L Moore, Theresa E Hickey, Hironobu Sasano and Wayne D Tilley

While the clinical benefit of androgen-based therapeutics in breast cancer has been known since the 1940s, we have only recently begun to fully understand the mechanisms of androgen action in breast cancer. Androgen signalling pathways can have either beneficial or deleterious effects in breast cancer depending on the breast cancer subtype and intracellular context. This review discusses our current knowledge of androgen signalling in breast cancer, including the relationship between serum androgens and breast cancer risk, the prognostic significance of androgen receptor (AR) expression in different breast cancer subtypes and the downstream molecular pathways mediating androgen action in breast cancer cells. Intracrine androgen metabolism has also been discussed and proposed as a potential mechanism that may explain some of the reported differences regarding dichotomous androgen actions in breast cancers. A better understanding of AR signalling in this disease is critical given the current resurgence in interest in utilising contemporary AR-directed therapies for breast cancer and the need for biomarkers that will accurately predict clinical response.

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Gerard A Tarulli, Lisa M Butler, Wayne D Tilley and Theresa E Hickey

While it has been known for decades that androgen hormones influence normal breast development and breast carcinogenesis, the underlying mechanisms have only been recently elucidated. To date, most studies have focused on androgen action in breast cancer cell lines, yet these studies represent artificial systems that often do not faithfully replicate/recapitulate the cellular, molecular and hormonal environments of breast tumours in vivo. It is critical to have a better understanding of how androgens act in the normal mammary gland as well as in in vivo systems that maintain a relevant tumour microenvironment to gain insights into the role of androgens in the modulation of breast cancer development. This in turn will facilitate application of androgen-modulation therapy in breast cancer. This is particularly relevant as current clinical trials focus on inhibiting androgen action as breast cancer therapy but, depending on the steroid receptor profile of the tumour, certain individuals may be better served by selectively stimulating androgen action. Androgen receptor (AR) protein is primarily expressed by the hormone-sensing compartment of normal breast epithelium, commonly referred to as oestrogen receptor alpha (ERa (ESR1))-positive breast epithelial cells, which also express progesterone receptors (PRs) and prolactin receptors and exert powerful developmental influences on adjacent breast epithelial cells. Recent lineage-tracing studies, particularly those focussed on NOTCH signalling, and genetic analysis of cancer risk in the normal breast highlight how signalling via the hormone-sensing compartment can influence normal breast development and breast cancer susceptibility. This provides an impetus to focus on the relationship between androgens, AR and NOTCH signalling and the crosstalk between ERa and PR signalling in the hormone-sensing component of breast epithelium in order to unravel the mechanisms behind the ability of androgens to modulate breast cancer initiation and growth.

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Elgene Lim, Gerard Tarulli, Neil Portman, Theresa E Hickey, Wayne D Tilley and Carlo Palmieri

The estrogen receptor-α (herein called ER) is a nuclear sex steroid receptor (SSR) that is expressed in approximately 75% of breast cancers. Therapies that modulate ER action have substantially improved the survival of patients with ER-positive breast cancer, but resistance to treatment still remains a major clinical problem. Treating resistant breast cancer requires co-targeting of ER and alternate signalling pathways that contribute to resistance to improve the efficacy and benefit of currently available treatments. Emerging data have shown that other SSRs may regulate the sites at which ER binds to DNA in ways that can powerfully suppress the oncogenic activity of ER in breast cancer. This includes the progesterone receptor (PR) that was recently shown to reprogram the ER DNA binding landscape towards genes associated with a favourable outcome. Another attractive candidate is the androgen receptor (AR), which is expressed in the majority of breast cancers and inhibits growth of the normal breast and ER-positive tumours when activated by ligand. These findings have led to the initiation of breast cancer clinical trials evaluating therapies that selectively harness the ability of SSRs to ‘push’ ER towards anti-tumorigenic activity. Our review will focus on the established and emerging clinical evidence for activating PR or AR in ER-positive breast cancer to inhibit the tumour growth-promoting functions of ER.

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KeeMing Chia, Heloisa Milioli, Neil Portman, Geraldine Laven-Law, Rhiannon Coulson, Aliza Yong, Davendra Segara, Andrew Parker, Catherine E Caldon, Niantao Deng, Alexander Swarbrick, Wayne D Tilley, Theresa E Hickey and Elgene Lim

The role of androgen receptor (AR) in endocrine-resistant breast cancer is controversial and clinical trials targeting AR with an AR antagonist (e.g., enzalutamide) have been initiated. Here, we investigated the consequence of AR antagonism using in vitro and in vivo models of endocrine resistance. AR antagonism in MCF7-derived tamoxifen-resistant (TamR) and long-term estrogen-deprived breast cancer cell lines were achieved using siRNA-mediated knockdown or pharmacological inhibition with enzalutamide. The efficacy of enzalutamide was further assessed in vivo in an estrogen-independent endocrine-resistant patient-derived xenograft (PDX) model. Knockdown of AR inhibited the growth of the endocrine-resistant cell line models. Microarray gene expression profiling of the TamR cells following AR knockdown revealed perturbations in proliferative signaling pathways upregulated in endocrine resistance. AR loss also increased some canonical ER signaling events and restored sensitivity of TamR cells to tamoxifen. In contrast, enzalutamide did not recapitulate the effect of AR knockdown in vitro, even though it inhibited canonical AR signaling, which suggests that it is the non-canonical AR activity that facilitated endocrine resistance. Enzalutamide had demonstrable efficacy in inhibiting AR activity in vivo but did not affect the growth of the endocrine-resistant PDX model. Our findings implicate non-canonical AR activity in facilitating an endocrine-resistant phenotype in breast cancer. Unlike canonical AR signaling which is inhibited by enzalutamide, non-canonical AR activity is not effectively antagonized by enzalutamide, and this has important implications in the design of future AR-targeted clinical trials in endocrine-resistant breast cancer.

Free access

Nicole L Moore, Grant Buchanan, Jonathan M Harris, Luke A Selth, Tina Bianco-Miotto, Adrienne R Hanson, Stephen N Birrell, Lisa M Butler, Theresa E Hickey and Wayne D Tilley

Recent evidence indicates that the estrogen receptor-α-negative, androgen receptor (AR)-positive molecular apocrine subtype of breast cancer is driven by AR signaling. The MDA-MB-453 cell line is the prototypical model of this breast cancer subtype; its proliferation is stimulated by androgens such as 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT) but inhibited by the progestin medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) via AR-mediated mechanisms. We report here that the AR gene in MDA-MB-453 cells contains a G-T transversion in exon 7, resulting in a receptor variant with a glutamine to histidine substitution at amino acid 865 (Q865H) in the ligand binding domain. Compared with wild-type AR, the Q865H variant exhibited reduced sensitivity to DHT and MPA in transactivation assays in MDA-MB-453 and PC-3 cells but did not respond to non-androgenic ligands or receptor antagonists. Ligand binding, molecular modeling, mammalian two-hybrid and immunoblot assays revealed effects of the Q865H mutation on ligand dissociation, AR intramolecular interactions, and receptor stability. Microarray expression profiling demonstrated that DHT and MPA regulate distinct transcriptional programs in MDA-MB-453 cells. Gene Set Enrichment Analysis revealed that DHT- but not MPA-regulated genes were associated with estrogen-responsive transcriptomes from MCF-7 cells and the Wnt signaling pathway. These findings suggest that the divergent proliferative responses of MDA-MB-453 cells to DHT and MPA result from the different genetic programs elicited by these two ligands through the AR-Q865H variant. This work highlights the necessity to characterize additional models of molecular apocrine breast cancer to determine the precise role of AR signaling in this breast cancer subtype.