The MCF-7 continuous line of human breast cancer cells requires that athymic nude mice receive supplemental estrogen so that inocula can produce progressively growing tumors. Although these cells contain a typical estrogen receptor complex, the lack of consistent growth stimulation induced by estrogens added to in vitro culture systems has raised the question as to whether this class of hormones acts directly upon the cells or induces a second message produced in other tissues. The present experiments were designed to test the effect of estradiol on the growth of these cells in vivo by exposing them directly to the hormone prior to its absorption into the hepatic portal circulation and subsequent metabolic inactivation. Tumor fragments that were placed next to an estradiol-containing pellet in the spleen grew to produce grossly evident tumor masses, whereas those in the subcutis of the same animals did not, although some minute residua did remain. In the splenic tumors, the mitotic index of the MCF-7 cells immediately adjacent to the estrogen pellets was 2.4 times that of cells on the other side of the same tumor and 3.5 times that of those in the minute s.c. residua. We interpret these data as indicating that in vivo estradiol is acting directly upon the MCF-7 cells to increase their rate of proliferation rather than to initiate the production of a second message to be released into the circulation.

Additionally, it was found that s.c. tumors that were decreasing in volume subsequent to withdrawal of systemic estrogen still contained dividing neoplastic cells but with a lower frequency than that seen in progressively growing tumors stimulated with estradiol. This finding indicates that MCF-7 cells can proliferate in vivo in the absence of a substantial amount of estrogen but only at a rate insufficient to sustain progressive tumor growth.

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This work was supported by Grant CA-25482 from NIH and an institutional grant from the United Foundation of Greater Detroit.

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