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Aromatase inhibitors as potential cancer chemopreventives.

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Chemoprevention Branch, Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland 20852, USA.


Epidemiological and experimental evidence strongly supports a role for estrogens in the development and growth of breast tumors. A role for estrogen in prostate neoplasia has also been postulated. Therefore, one chemopreventive strategy for breast and prostate cancers is to decrease estrogen production. This can be accomplished by inhibiting aromatase, the enzyme that catalyzes the final, rate-limiting step in estrogen biosynthesis. The use of aromatase inhibitors is of clinical interest for cancer therapy, and selective, potent aromatase inhibitors have been developed. Several of these agents have demonstrated chemopreventive efficacy in animal models. The rationale for the use of aromatase inhibitors as chemopreventives and identification of inhibitors to serve as potential chemopreventive agents are the subjects of this review. After background information regarding aromatase is presented, the data for each inhibitor are summarized separately. The discussion focuses on those inhibitors that are clinically available or in clinical trials, including: aminoglutethimide (Cytadren), rogletimide, fadrozole hydrochloride, liarozole hydrochloride, anastrozole (Arimidex), letrozole, vorozole, formestane, exemestane, and atamestane. On the basis of results from preclinical studies, aromatase inhibitors may be promising agents for clinical trials in populations at high risk for developing estrogen-dependent cancers. Total suppression of aromatase may have adverse effects, as is evident in postmenopausal women (increased osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and urogenital atrophy). However, on the basis of preclinical studies of chemopreventive efficacy and chemotherapeutic applications of aromatase inhibitors showing dose-response efficacy, it may be possible to obtain chemopreventive effects without total suppression of aromatase and circulating estrogen levels. Suppressing local estrogen production may be an alternative strategy, as suggested by the discovery of a unique transcriptional promoter of aromatase gene expression, I.4, in breast adipose tissue. The development of drugs that target this promoter region may be possible.

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