To study the mechanism of regression of human mammary cancer following estrogen ablation, estrogen-responsive MCF-7 human mammary adenocarcinoma cells were inoculated into ovariectomized female nude mice supplemented with exogenous 17β-estradiol (E2) via an E2 implant. Implants were then removed when MCF-7 tumors were 400 mm3 in size. Removal of the E2 implants resulted in a 50% tumor regression by 2 weeks following E2 ablation. Associated with this regression is a rapid (i.e., within 1 day following E2 ablation) enhanced expression of the transforming growth factor β1 and TRPM-2 genes, two genes the expression of which has been previously demonstrated to be enhanced in a variety of cell types induced to undergo programmed cell death (i.e., apoptosis). The enhanced expression of transforming growth factor β1 and TRPM-2 is not a nonspecific response since the expression of other genes, like c-fos, c-H-ras, and pS2, decrease following E2 ablation. Fragmentation of tumor DNA into nucleosomal oligomers and histological appearance of apoptotic bodies are characteristic early events that precede the dramatic reduction in tumor volume following E2 ablation. These results demonstrate that the regression of MCF-7 human mammary cancers in nude mice following estrogen ablation is due to a sequence of biochemical and morphological changes that result in both the cessation of cell proliferation and activation of programmed death or apoptosis of these MCF-7 cancer cells. Clarification of the biochemical pathway involved in the activation of this programmed cell death should identify new targets of therapy for even estrogen-independent human mammary cancer cells.

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These studies were supported by Department of Health and Human Services Grants CA 50601 and CA 40011. N. E. D. is a recipient of an American Cancer Society Clinical Oncology Career Development Award 90–128 and a Merck Clinician Scientist Award.

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