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Response of Estrogen Receptor-Positive Breast Cancer Tumorspheres to Antiestrogen Treatments

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018810
  • Research Article
  • Biology
  • Molecular Cell Biology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Membrane Receptor Signaling
  • Hormone Receptor Signaling
  • Cell Growth
  • Medicine
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine Physiology
  • Hormones
  • Obstetrics And Gynecology
  • Breast Cancer
  • Oncology
  • Basic Cancer Research
  • Tumor Physiology
  • Cancers And Neoplasms
  • Breast Tumors
  • Biology
  • Medicine


Estrogen signaling plays a critical role in the pathogenesis of breast cancer. Because the majority of breast carcinomas express the estrogen receptor ERα, endocrine therapy that impedes estrogen-ER signaling reduces breast cancer mortality and has become a mainstay of breast cancer treatment. However, patients remain at continued risk of relapse for many years after endocrine treatment. It has been proposed that cancer recurrence may be attributed to cancer stem cells (CSCs)/tumor-initiating cells (TICs). Previous studies in breast cancer have shown that such cells can be enriched and propagated in vitro by culturing the cells in suspension as mammospheres/tumorspheres. Here we established tumorspheres from ERα-positive human breast cancer cell line MCF7 and investigated their response to antiestrogens Tamoxifen and Fulvestrant. The tumorsphere cells express lower levels of ERα and are more tumorigenic in xenograft assays than the parental cells. Both 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-OHT) and Fulvestrant attenuate tumorsphere cell proliferation, but only 4-OHT at high concentrations interferes with sphere formation. However, treated tumorsphere cells retain the self-renewal capacity. Upon withdrawal of antiestrogens, the treated cells resume tumorsphere formation and their tumorigenic potential remains undamaged. Depletion of ERα shows that ERα is dispensable for tumorsphere formation and xenograft tumor growth in mice. Surprisingly, ERα-depleted tumorspheres display heightened sensitivity to 4-OHT and their sphere-forming capacity is diminished after the drug is removed. These results imply that 4-OHT may inhibit cellular targets besides ERα that are essential for tumorsphere growth, and provide a potential strategy to sensitize tumorspheres to endocrine treatment.

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