Tamoxifen is widely used in the adjuvant treatment of estrogen receptor–positive (ER+) breast cancer and is an important drug for pre-menopausal women and post-menopausal patients who cannot tolerate aromatase inhibitors. Despite the clear clinical benefit in improving relapse-free and overall survival in these patients, an adverse effect of tamoxifen is a 2- to 7-fold increased risk of uterine cancer (UC) after 2-5 years of treatment. To date, the mechanism of tamoxifen-driven tumorigenesis is not well understood, and preventive approaches are lacking. Here, to molecularly characterize tamoxifen-associated uterine cancers (TA-UCs) and gain insights into their unique evolution, we performed whole-exome sequencing of 21 TA-UCs (discovery cohort) and droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) of an additional 40 TA-UCs (validation cohort) obtained from the ‘Tamoxifen Associated Malignancies: Aspects of Risk’ (TAMARISK) study. In addition, we used in vivo mouse models to: (i) further investigate tamoxifen-activated molecular pathways that may be involved in TA-UC tumorigenesis; and (ii) offer mechanistic insights. Overall, we discovered that TA-UCs were genomically similar to non–TA-UCs from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, with one profound exception: TA-UCs are characterized by a lower-than-expected frequency of mutations in two highly prevalent UC driver genes in the PI3K pathway: PIK3CA (14% [3/21] vs 48% [265/554] in non–TA-UC; P=0.003, Fisher’s exact test; Q=0.02, Benjamini-Hochberg FDR) and PIK3R1 (0%, [0/21] vs 31% [174/554]; P=0.001; Q=0.01). We used ddPCR in the independent TA-UC validation cohort and confirmed the low frequency of mutations in PIK3CA (7.5% [3/40] vs 21% [144/685] in control UCs from the Dana-Farber contribution to the AACR GENIE project; P=0.04). We next performed mouse in vivo studies and demonstrated that tamoxifen activated the PI3K pathway and increased cell proliferation in normal mouse uterine tissue through paracrine and autocrine effects, both of which were abrogated by the PI3K inhibitor alpelisib. Taken together, we describe a distinct and novel pathway of carcinogenesis in which tamoxifen acts as a driver event in the uterus and promotes tumor development in a mutation-independent manner. Indeed, tamoxifen may increase the risk of UC by activating the PI3K pathway, which can substitute for the early acquisition of oncogenic PIK3CA or PIK3R1 mutations observed in non–TA-UC tumors. Furthermore, the ability of a PI3K inhibitor to reduce cell proliferation in our mouse model raises the possibility that downregulating the PI3K pathway may prevent or significantly reduce TA-UC development, offering a potential future therapeutic and prevention strategy for specific high-risk patients undergoing tamoxifen therapy.

Citation Format: Kirsten Kubler, Agostina Nardone, Shankara Anand, Daniel Gorvich, Marjolein Droog, Francisco Hermida-Prado, Tara Akshi, Avery S Feit, Gabriella Cohen, Gwen Dackus, Matthew Pun, Yanan Kuang, Justin Cha, Mendy Miller, William J Gibson, Cloud P Paweletz, Eliezer M Van Allen, Flora E van Leeuwen, Petra Nederlof, Harry Hollema, Quang-Dé Nguyen, Marian JE Mourits, Ignaty Leshchiner, Chip Stewart, Ursula A Matulonis, Wilbert Zwart, Yosef E Maruvka, Gad Getz, Rinath Jeselsohn. Tamoxifen instigates uterine cancer development by activating PI3K signaling and supersedes PIK3CA driver mutations [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 2021 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium; 2021 Dec 7-10; San Antonio, TX. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2022;82(4 Suppl):Abstract nr GS2-09.