In the majority of women, breast cancer progresses through increased transcriptional activity due to over-expressed oestrogen receptors (ER). Therapeutic strategies include: (i) reduction of circulating ovarian oestrogens or of peripherally produced oestrogen (in postmenopausal women) with aromatase inhibitors and (ii) application of selective ER modulators for receptor blockade. The success of these interventions is limited by the variable but persistent onset of acquired resistance and by an intrinsic refractiveness which manifests despite adequate levels of ER in about 50% of patients with advanced metastatic disease. Loss of functional ER leads to endocrine insensitivity, loss of cellular adhesion and polarity, and increased migratory potential due to trans-differentiation of the epithelial cancer cells into a mesenchymal-like phenotype (epithelial-mesenchymal transition; EMT). Multiple mechanisms contributing to therapeutic failure have been proposed: (i) loss or modification of ER expression including epigenetic mechanisms, (ii) agonistic actions of selective ER modulators that may be enhanced through an increased expression of co-activators, (iii) attenuation of the tamoxifen metabolism through expression of genetic variants of P450 cytochromes which leads to more or less active metabolites and (iv) increased growth factor signalling particularly through epidermal growth factor receptor activation of pathways involving keratinocyte growth factor, platelet-derived growth factor, and nuclear factor κB. In addition, the small non-coding microRNAs, recently recognized as critical gene regulators, exhibit differential expression in tamoxifen-sensitive versus resistant cell lines. Several studies suggest the potential of using these either as targets or as therapeutic agents to modulate EMT regulators as a means of reversing the aggressive metastatic phenotype by reversal of the EMT, with the added benefit of re-sensitization to anti-oestrogens.
- Breast cancer
- Endocrine resistance
- Epithelial-mesenchymal transition
- Growth factor receptors
- Selective oestrogen receptor modulators