The growth of cultured human breast cancer cells is sensitive to physiological concentrations of insulin suggesting that it may regulate breast cancer growth in vivo. The mechanisms for the growth effects of insulin are poorly defined. In the present study, we examine the effects of insulin on the cell cycle kinetics of asynchronous MCF-7 human breast cancer cells growing in serum-free medium. When the [3H]thymidine labeling index is used to estimate the S-phase fraction, insulin added to asynchronously growing cells results in a time-dependent increase in the proportion of cells engaged in DNA synthesis. Computer analysis of DNA histograms obtained by flow cytometry of mithramycin-stained cells also shows a time-dependent progression of cells into and through the S-phase compartment. Sixteen hr after adding insulin to asynchronous cells, 66% of cells are in S-phase compared to 37% in controls. The effect of insulin on the cell cycle progression of MCF-7 cells is also dose dependent. Stimulation is observed with physiological insulin concentrations of 0.1 to 1.0 nm; maximal effects are observed with 1.0 to 10 nm insulin. Various insulin analogues enhance the progression of cells into S phase in proportion to their ability to bind to the insulin receptor in MCF-7 cells (porcine ≥ chicken > guinea pig > deoctapeptide insulin), while unrelated peptide hormones have no effect on the cell cycle kinetics. Cell cycle analysis after the addition of colchicine to prevent mitosis and the reentry of cells into G1 demonstrates a shortened G1 in response to insulin. Continuous [3H]thymidine-labeling studies after the addition of colchicine suggest that the growth fraction is about 88% with or without insulin. In summary, insulin causes a marked perturbation of the cell cycle kinetics of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells by facilitating the transit of cells through G1. The data also suggest that this effect is mediated via the insulin receptor.


This work was supported by NIH Grant CA 30251.

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