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Semin Oncol. 2003 Aug;30(4 Suppl 14):3-11.

Aromatase inhibitors: mechanism of action and role in the treatment of breast cancer.

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University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.


The natural history of breast cancer is closely linked with estrogens. These hormones influence both risk to the disease and growth of many established tumors. Consequently, measures that either inhibit the synthesis or block the mechanism of action of estrogens are attractive strategies for therapeutic intervention. This is particularly true in postmenopausal women in whom hormone responsiveness is common and estrogen synthesis is primarily sited peripherally in adipose tissue, muscle and breast tissue, rather than in the ovaries as in premenopausal women. In terms of inhibiting production, the most specific effects are best achieved by blocking the last step in biosynthesis, the conversion of androgens to estrogens by the heme-containing enzyme, aromatase. Two major classes of aromatase inhibitors have been developed and are currently in clinical use. Type I steroidal drugs include formestane and exemestane; they are androgen substrate analogues that bind competitively but irreversibly to the enzyme and have been marketed as "inactivators." Type II nonsteroidal inhibitors such as anastrozole and letrozole are triazoles; they bind reversibly to the enzyme and fit into the substrate binding site, such that azole nitrogens interact with the heme prosthetic group. This type of association provides exquisite potency for and specificity against the aromatase enzyme. These agents represent several generations of development, with each step in the evolution producing an increase in both potency and specificity. The latest aromatase inhibitors are drugs of immense potential that will undoubtedly play a major role in the management of postmenopausal women with hormone-dependent breast cancer. They also represent tools by which to elucidate the roles of both aromatase and estrogen in the development and growth of breast cancer.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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