Background: Induction of apoptosis by tamoxifen has been postulated to involve oxidative stress. Tamoxifen (TAM) may act on estrogen receptors (ER) located in the plasma membrane. Our hypothesis that supplemental antioxidant vitamin E (α-tocopherol) acts at the plasma membrane to alter the effectiveness of tamoxifen was tested in ER-positive breast cancer cell lines, MCF-7 and T47D. Methods: Cells were treated in vitro with 20-μM TAM alone and in combination with 10-μM α-tocopherol (AT). Estrogen growth signals were quantified by immunohistochemical staining for the mitogen-activated protein kinase p-ERK. Rapid changes in intracellular calcium were detected in TAM-treated MCF-7 and T-47D cells by fluorescence microscopy of cells loaded with the calcium-sensitive dye Fluo 4AM. Apoptosis was assayed by flow cytometry. Results: Proliferating cells in normal medium exhibited strong p-ERK staining. Addition of TAM abolished p-ERK staining and caused cell rounding and death. The addition of AT led to the restoration of cell proliferation and p-ERK expression even in the presence of high-dose TAM. Intracellular calcium rapidly increased in MCF-7 and T47D cells upon exposure to TAM, followed by an increase in caspase activation and eventual apoptosis. The increase in intracellular calcium was abolished by the addition of 10μM AT to TAM, and pan-caspase staining decreased at 5 hours from 72% to 41%. Conclusions: These studies suggest that supplemental vitamin E decreases the inhibitory effect of TAM on the proliferation of ER+ breast cancer cells and eliminates the rapid rise in intracellular calcium that leads to apoptosis stimulated by TAM. The use of vitamin E acetate supplements may be inadvisable for women taking tamoxifen.
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