This study identifies macroautophagy as a key mechanism of cell survival in estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer cells undergoing treatment with 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-OHT). This selective ER modifier is an active metabolite of tamoxifen commonly used for the treatment of breast cancer. Our study provides the following key findings: (a) only 20% to 25% of breast cancer cells treated with 4-OHT in vitro die via caspase-dependent cell death; more typically, the antiestrogen-treated ER+ breast cancer cells express increased levels of macroautophagy and are viable; (b) 4-OHT-induced cell death, but not 4-OHT-induced macroautophagy, can be blocked by the pan-caspase inhibitor z-VAD-fmk, providing strong evidence that these two outcomes of antiestrogen treatment are not linked in an obligatory manner; (c) 4-OHT-resistant cells selected from ER+ breast cancer cells show an increased ability to undergo antiestrogen-induced macroautophagy without induction of caspase-dependent cell death; and (d) 4-OHT, when used in combination with inhibitors of autophagosome function, induces robust, caspase-dependent apoptosis of ER+, 4-OHT-resistant breast cancer cells. To our knowledge, these studies provide the first evidence that macroautophagy plays a critical role in the development of antiestrogen resistance. We propose that targeting autophagosome function will improve the efficacy of hormonal treatment of ER+ breast cancer.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research