PURPOSE - Although most patients with estrogen receptor α (ER)-positive breast cancer initially respond to endocrine therapy, many ultimately develop resistance to antiestrogens. However, mechanisms of antiestrogen resistance and biomarkers predictive of such resistance are underdeveloped.
EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN - We adapted four ER(+) human breast cancer cell lines to grow in an estrogen-depleted medium. A gene signature of estrogen independence was developed by comparing expression profiles of long-term estrogen-deprived (LTED) cells to their parental counterparts. We evaluated the ability of the LTED signature to predict tumor response to neoadjuvant therapy with an aromatase inhibitor and disease outcome following adjuvant tamoxifen. We utilized Gene Set Analysis (GSA) of LTED cell gene expression profiles and a loss-of-function approach to identify pathways causally associated with resistance to endocrine therapy.
RESULTS - The LTED gene expression signature was predictive of high tumor cell proliferation following neoadjuvant therapy with anastrozole and letrozole, each in different patient cohorts. This signature was also predictive of poor recurrence-free survival in two studies of patients treated with adjuvant tamoxifen. Bioinformatic interrogation of expression profiles in LTED cells revealed a signature of MYC activation. The MYC activation signature and high MYC protein levels were both predictive of poor outcome following tamoxifen therapy. Finally, knockdown of MYC inhibited LTED cell growth.
CONCLUSIONS - A gene expression signature derived from ER(+) breast cancer cells with acquired hormone independence predicted tumor response to aromatase inhibitors and associated with clinical markers of resistance to tamoxifen. Activation of the MYC pathway was associated with this resistance.