Preliminary studies have suggested that measuring the ability of immunoreactive 67-kDa estrogen receptor (ER) to bind DNA and form in vitro complexes with its cognate estrogen response element (ERE) might serve to identify breast tumors most likely to respond to antiestrogens like tamoxifen. Data from two different surveys of untreated primary breast tumors confirmed that only 67% (74 of 111) of ER-positive tumors express a receptor capable of forming ER-ERE complexes by gel-shift assay, with tumors of lower ER content having significantly reduced ER DNA-binding frequency (56%) relative to those of higher ER content (82%; P = 0.007). In contrast to these untreated tumors, a panel of 41 receptor-positive breast tumors excised after acquiring clinical resistance to tamoxifen during either primary (n = 26) or adjuvant therapy (n = 15) showed a significantly greater ER DNA-binding frequency, with nearly 90% capable of forming ER-ERE complexes (P < 0.02). To assess experimentally whether ER DNA-binding function is altered during the development of antiestrogen resistance, nude mouse MCF-7 tumor xenografts were analyzed before and after the acquisition of in vivo resistance to either tamoxifen or a pure steroidal antiestrogen, ICI 182,780. Tamoxifen-resistant MCF-7 tumors retained full expression of 67-kDa DNA-binding ER, and despite a markedly reduced ER content in the ICI 182,780-treated tumors, the expressed ER in these antiestrogen-resistant tumors exhibited full ability to form ER-ERE complexes. These findings indicate that breast tumors with acquired antiestrogen resistance continue to express ER of normal size and DNA-binding ability and suggest that the failure of antiestrogens to arrest tumor growth during emergence of clinical resistance results from an altered gene-regulatory mechanism(s) other than ER-ERE complex formation.

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Supported in part by the Sussan G. Komen Foundation, the Janet Landfear and Hazel P. Munroe Memorial Funds, and Grants R01-CA71468 and P50-CA58183 from the National Cancer Institute. S. R. D. J. was funded by a Cancer Research Campaign Clinical Research Training Fellowship.

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