The effect of second-line antiestrogen therapy on breast tumor growth after first-line treatment with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole: long-term studies using the intratumoral aromatase postmenopausal breast cancer model

Brian J Long, Danijela Jelovac, Apinya Thiantanawat, Angela M Brodie
Clinical Cancer Research 2002, 8 (7): 2378-88

PURPOSE: The aromatase inhibitors letrozole and anastrozole have been approvedrecently as first-line treatment options for hormone-dependent advanced breast cancer. Although it is established that a proportion of patients who relapse on first-line tamoxifen therapy show additional responses to aromatase inhibitors, it has not been determined whether tumors that acquire resistance to aromatase inhibitors in the first line remain sensitive to second-line therapy with antiestrogens. The aim of this study was to determine whether aromatase-transfected and hormone-dependent MCF-7Ca human breast cancer cells remain sensitive to antiestrogens after: (a) long-term growth in steroid-depleted medium in vitro; and (b) long-term treatment with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole in vivo.

METHODS: In the first approach, a variant of the MCF-7Ca human breast cancer cell line was selected that had acquired the ability to grow in estrogen-depleted medium after 6-8 months of culture. Steroid-deprived UMB-1Ca cells were analyzed for aromatase activity levels, hormone receptor levels, and sensitivity to estrogens and antiestrogens in vitro and in vivo. In the second approach, established MCF-7Ca breast tumor xenografts were treated with letrozole 10 microg/day for 12 weeks followed by 100 microg/day for 25 weeks until tumors acquired the ability to proliferate in the presence of the drug. Long-term letrozole-treated tumors were then transplanted into new mice, and the effects of antiestrogens and aromatase inhibitors on tumor growth were determined.

RESULTS: Steroid-deprived UMB-1Ca breast cancer cells continued to express aromatase activity at levels comparable with the parental cell line. However, compared with MCF-7Ca cells, UMB-1Ca cells expressed elevated levels of functionally active estrogen receptor. The growth of UMB-1Ca cells in vitro was inhibited by the antiestrogens tamoxifen and faslodex and tumor growth in vivo was inhibited by tamoxifen. In the second approach, the time for MCF-7Ca tumor xenografts to approximately double in volume after being treated sequentially with the increasing doses of letrozole was thirty-seven weeks. Long-term letrozole-treated tumors continued to express functionally active aromatase. When transplanted into new mice, growth of the long-term letrozole-treated tumors was slowed by tamoxifen and inhibited more effectively by faslodex. Tumor growth was refractory to the aromatase inhibitors anastrozole and formestane but, surprisingly, showed sensitivity to letrozole.

CONCLUSIONS: Steroid-deprived UMB-1Ca human breast cancer cells selected in vitro and long-term letrozole-treated MCF-7Ca breast tumor xenografts remain sensitive to second-line therapy with antiestrogens and, in particular, to faslodex. This finding is associated with increased expression of functionally active estrogen receptor after steroid-deprivation of MCF-7Ca human breast cancer cells in vitro.

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