Breast cancer is a sex steroid hormone-dependent malignant neoplasia. The role of oestradiol in this malignancy has been well documented; however, the involvement of androgens has remained controversial. To determine the role of non-phenolic androgen metabolites in human breast cancer, we studied the metabolism of [14C] testosterone and [14C] androstenedione in oestrogen-dependent MCF-7 cells and non-oestrogen-dependent MDA-MB 231 cells, at different substrate concentrations (1–10 μM) and time periods (30 min–48 h). Cultured non-oestrogen-dependent HeLa and yeast cells served as controls. Metabolites were identified and quantified by reverse isotope dilution. A distinctive pattern of androgen metabolism was identified in MCF-7 cells, being the 5α-androstane-3α,17β-diol (3α,5α-diol) and its 3β epimer (3β,5α-diol), the major conversion products of testosterone (48.3%), with 5α-dihydrotestosterone as intermediary. The formation of 3α,5α-diol and 3β,5α-diol (diols) was substrate concentration- and time-dependent, and abolished by finasteride. In contrast, very little of any diol formation was observed in MDA-MB 231, HeLa and yeast cell incubations. Additional enzyme gene expression studies revealed an overexpression of 5α-steroid reductase type-1 in MCF-7 cells, as compared with MDA-MB 231 cells. The oestrogen-like activities of diols were assessed in HeLa cells co-transfected with expression vectors for α or β subtypes of the human oestrogen receptor (hER) genes and for an oestrogen-responsive reporter gene. The results show that 3β, 5α-diol and to a lesser extent 3α,5α-diol bind with high relative affinity to hERα and hERβ.
Both diols induced hER-mediated reporter gene transactivation in a dose–response manner, similar to that induced by oestradiol, though with lower potency, an effect that was abolished by ICI-182 780. Furthermore, 3β,5α-diol and to lesser extent 3α,5α-diol induced MCF-7 cell proliferation. The overall results demonstrated that MCF-7 cells exhibit enhanced expression and activity of androgen-metabolising enzymes, leading to rapid and large diol formation, and provide evidence that these androgen metabolites exert a potent oestrogen-agonistic effect, at genomic level, in oestrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. The data suggest that diols may act as in situ intracrine factors in breast cancer and that its formation can be pharmacologically inhibited.