High dose oestrogen therapy was used as a treatment for postmenopausal patients with breast cancer from the 1950s until the introduction of the safer antioestrogen, tamoxifen in the 1970s. The anti-tumour mechanism of high dose oestrogen therapy remained unknown. There was no enthusiasm to study these signal transduction pathways as oestrogen therapy has almost completely been eliminated from the treatment paradigm. Current use of tamoxifen and the aromatase inhibitors seek to create oestrogen deprivation that prevents the growth of oestrogen stimulated oestrogen receptor (ER) positive breast cancer cells. However, acquired resistance to antihormonal therapy does occur, but it is through investigation of laboratory models that a vulnerability of the cancer cell has been discovered and is being investigated to provide new opportunities in therapy with the potential for discovering new cancer-specific apoptotic drugs. Laboratory models of resistance to raloxifene and tamoxifen, the selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) and aromatase inhibitors demonstrate an evolution of drug resistance so that after many years of oestrogen deprivation, the ER positive cancer cell reconfigures the survival signal transduction pathways so oestrogen now becomes an apoptotic trigger rather than a survival signal. Current efforts are evaluating the mechanisms of oestrogen-induced apoptosis and how this new biology of oestrogen action can be amplified and enhanced, thereby increasing the value of this therapeutic opportunity for the treatment of breast cancer. Several synergistic approaches to therapeutic enhancement are being advanced which involve drug combinations to impair survival signaling with the use of specific agents and to impair bcl-2 that protects the cancer cell from apoptosis. We highlight the historical understanding of oestrogens role in cell survival and death and specifically illustrate the progress that has been made in the last five years to understand the mechanisms of oestrogen-induced apoptosis. There are opportunities to harness knowledge from this new signal transduction pathway to discover the precise mechanism of this oestrogen-induced apoptotic trigger. Indeed, the new biology of oestrogen action also has significance for understanding the physiology of bone remodeling. Thus, the pathway has a broad appeal in both physiology and cancer research.
Keywords: Breast cancer, oestrogen receptor, oestrogen action, apoptosis, tamoxifen, selective oestrogen receptor modulators
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