Tamoxifen metabolites as active inhibitors of aromatase in the treatment of breast cancer

Wenjie Jessie Lu, Zeruesenay Desta, David A. Flockhart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

51 Scopus citations


The mechanism of tamoxifen action in the treatment of breast cancer is believed to be via active metabolites that act as potent estrogen receptor antagonists. Attempts to identify relationships between active metabolite concentrations and clinical outcomes have produced mixed results. Since anti-estrogenic effects may be brought about not only by estrogen antagonism, but also by reduced estrogen synthesis, we tested the ability of tamoxifen and its principal metabolites to inhibit aromatase in vitro. The activity of human aromatase in both recombinant and placental microsomal preparations was measured using the rate of generation of a fluorescent metabolite in the presence and absence of multiple concentrations of tamoxifen, endoxifen, N-desmethyl- tamoxifen, and Z-4-hydroxy-tamoxifen. Aromatase inhibition was further characterized by measuring the inhibition of testosterone metabolism to estradiol. The biochemical mechanisms of inhibition were documented and their inhibitory potency was compared. Using recombinant human aromatase, endoxifen, and N-desmethyl-tamoxifen were able to inhibit aromatase activity with K i values of 4.0 and 15.9 μM, respectively. Detailed characterization of inhibition by endoxifen and N-desmethyl-tamoxifen indicated non-competitive kinetics for both inhibitors. Similarly, endoxifen-inhibited testosterone metabolism via a non-competitive mechanism. No appreciable inhibition by tamoxifen or Z-4-hydroxy-tamoxifen was observed at similar concentrations. The relative inhibitory potency was: endoxifen > N-desmethyl-tamoxifen >>> Z-4-hydroxy-tamoxifen > tamoxifen. Similar data were obtained in human placental microsomes. Endoxifen and N-desmethyl-tamoxifen were found to be potent inhibitors of aromatase. Inhibition by these tamoxifen metabolites may contribute to the variability in clinical effects of tamoxifen in patients with breast cancer. Relationships between tamoxifen metabolite concentrations and clinical outcomes may be complex, and the biologic mechanisms that underlie these relationships may include aromatase inhibition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-481
Number of pages9
JournalBreast Cancer Research and Treatment
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012


  • Aromatase inhibitor
  • Breast cancer
  • Endoxifen
  • Estrogen
  • Tamoxifen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research

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