The estrogen receptor (ER)-positive human breast cancer cell line T 47D exhibited genetic instability under cell culture conditions which maintained almost continuous exponential growth. This resulted in the spontaneous generation of three ER-positive sublines with a range of DNA ploidies and distinctive phenotypes. One of these sublines, T 47D-5, exhibited resistance to the growth-inhibitory effects of the synthetic nonsteroidal antiestrogen tamoxifen and the synthetic progestin ORG 2058, in marked contrast to “wild type” T 47D cells (designated T 47D-7 in this study).

T 47D-5 cells were cloned by limiting dilution and 11 clonal cell lines were tested for sensitivity to tamoxifen. Although all clones of T 47D-5 were significantly less sensitive than T 47D-7 cells, a spectrum of sensitivities was observed. Three clones, T 47D-5-13, T 47D-5-21, and T 47D-5-23, were further characterized by measuring the concentrations of receptors for estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone, and epidermal growth factor and responses to estradiol, tamoxifen, and progestin, in terms of both induction of specific proteins and effects on cellular proliferation. Although the T 47D-5 subline and clone T 47D-5-23 were insensitive to both the growth-stimulatory effects of estradiol and the inhibitory effects of tamoxifen, this was not related to the concentration of ER or its ability to induce progesterone receptor. Estrogen receptor levels were similar in resistant and sensitive clones of T 47D-5 [70,000–81,000 sites/cell] and were 2.5-fold greater than in the sensitive T 47D-7 line [32,600 ± 5,000 (SEM) sites/cell]. Northern blots showed no difference in the size of ER mRNA transcripts between sensitive and resistant clones. Estradiol treatment increased progesterone receptor (PR) levels in all cell lines but the magnitude and sensitivity of this response were unrelated to growth responses indicating a divergence in estrogenic control of cellular proliferation and specific protein synthesis within these clones.

T 47D-5, T 47D-5-13, T 47D-5-21, and T 47D-5-23 were all insensitive to the growth-inhibitory effects of ORG 2058. The progestin was also unable to increase lactogenic and epidermal growth factor receptor concentrations in these four lines in contrast to the response in T 47D-7 cells. The insensitivity to progestin in the T 47D-5 subline and its three clonal cell lines could be accounted for, in part, by a 75–80% reduction in PR levels when compared with T 47D-7 cells. However, significant concentrations of PR (162,000–230,000 sites/cell) were still present in these progestin-insensitive cells.

Since these data failed to identify major alterations in ER and PR binding it is concluded that insensitivity to growth regulation by estrogen, antiestrogen, and progestin in the T 47D-5 subline and its clones is due predominantly to aberrations in steroid hormone action distal to receptor binding. However, alterations to other regulatory pathways controlling T 47D cell replication cannot be excluded. These unique clonal cell lines may therefore provide useful models to further study the molecular basis of hormone insensitivity in ER-positive, PR-positive human breast cancer.


Supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and the New South Wales State Cancer Council.

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