Changes in estrogen receptor (ER) expression and function may explain the development of tamoxifen resistance in breast cancer. ER expression was measured by an immunohistochemical assay, validated for use in tamoxifen-treated tumors against a biochemical enzyme immunoassay, in 72 paired biopsies taken before treatment and at progression or relapse on tamoxifen. Progesterone receptor (PgR) and pS2 gene expression were also measured immunohistochemically as an indicator of ER function.

Overall the frequency of ER expression was reduced from 37 of 72 (51%) pretamoxifen to 21 of 72 (29%) at progression or relapse, with a significant reduction in the quantitative level of ER (P < 0.0001; Wilcoxon signed rank sum test). Tumors treated with primary tamoxifen that responded but then developed acquired resistance frequently remained ER positive (ER+) at relapse: 16 of 18 (89%) were ER+ pretamoxifen (75% of these expressed either PgR or pS2) and 11 of 18 (61%) were ER+ at relapse (82% continued to express PgR or pS2). In contrast, only 3 of 20 (15%) tumors that progressed on primary tamoxifen with de novo resistance were ER+ pretamoxifen, and all tumors were ER — at progression. At progression, 6 of 20 (30%) of these tumors expressed high levels of PgR (mean H-score, 98) and/or pS2 (mean, 50% cells positive), despite being ER —. In tumors that recurred during adjuvant tamoxifen therapy, including locoregional and metastatic lesions, ER expression was significantly reduced from 18 of 34 (53%) in the original primary tumor to 10 of 34 (29%) at relapse (P = 0.002). PgR expression was likewise significantly reduced in this group (P = 0.001).

This study confirms that expression of a functional ER in breast cancer is a strong predictor for primary response to tamoxifen. Although ER was reduced in tamoxifen-resistant tumors overall, the development of acquired resistance was associated with maintained ER expression and function in many tumors, whereas de novo resistance remained related to lack of ER expression. Recurrence during adjuvant tamoxifen was associated with development of an ER/PgR-negative phenotype in some tumors. These data imply that separate mechanisms of resistance may occur in these different clinical subgroups.


This study was supported by the Cancer Research Campaign. S. R. D. J. is a CRC Clinical Research Training Fellow. G. S-J. was supported in part by the following grants: CNR ACRO Project, CNR Bilateral 94.02482.CT04, and MURST 40% (Italy).

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