Women approaching menopause increasingly investigate alternatives to hormone replacement therapy. Plant phytoestrogens are being promoted as "natural" alternatives but there is a lack of substantive data to advocate their safe use in breast cancer patients receiving tamoxifen (TAM), or in those who have relapsed. The aim of our study was to investigate the proliferative effects and mode of action of the phytoestrogens genistein, daidzein and coumestrol on TAM-sensitive (-s) and resistant (-r) breast cancer cells under in vitro conditions designed to mimic the hormonal environment of the pre- and post-menopausal breast. At physiological concentrations (<10 μM) and under reduced estrogen (E2) conditions, genistein was mitogenic to TAM-s cells with TAM-r cells generally refractory. Daidzein and coumestrol were growth stimulatory irrespective of TAM sensitivity. Transcriptional activity was ERE-mediated. Combining phytoestrogens with E2 (simulating the pre-menopausal breast environment) had no effect on growth of TAM-s or TAM-r cells. Addition of 4-HT mimicked the hormonal environment in post-menopausal breast cancer patients receiving TAM. The growth inhibitory effects of 4-HT were abrogated in TAM-s cells when combined with genistein and coumestrol, and to a lesser extent, daidzein, where significant growth stimulatory effects were observed. In TAM-r cells, proliferation did not exceed control values. At phytoestrogen concentrations above 10 μM, growth inhibitory effects were seen, irrespective of estrogenic environment or cell sensitivity to TAM. Our in vitro data suggests that phytoestrogens could have potentially adverse mitogenic effects on tumour cells and should probably be avoided by patients who remain sensitive to TAM or in those with pre-existing and possibly undiagnosed breast tumours.
- Breast cancer