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Oral low dose and topical tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention: modern approaches for an old drug

Matteo Lazzeroni1*, Davide Serrano1, Barbara K Dunn2, Brandy M Heckman-Stoddard2, Oukseub Lee3, Seema Khan3 and Andrea Decensi14

Author Affiliations

1 Divisions of Cancer Prevention and Genetics, European Institute of Oncology, Milan, 20141 Italy

2 Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA

3 Department of Surgery, Robert H Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL 60611, USA

4 Division of Medical Oncology, EO Ospedali Galliera, Genoa, 16128 Italy

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Breast Cancer Research 2012, 14:214  doi:10.1186/bcr3233

Published: 29 October 2012


Tamoxifen is a drug that has been in worldwide use for the treatment of estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer for over 30 years; it has been used in both the metastatic and adjuvant settings. Tamoxifen's approval for breast cancer risk reduction dates back to 1998, after results from the Breast Cancer Prevention Trial, co-sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, showed a 49% reduction in the incidence of invasive, ER-positive breast cancer in high-risk women. Despite these positive findings, however, the public's attitude toward breast cancer chemoprevention remains ambivalent, and the toxicities associated with tamoxifen, particularly endometrial cancer and thromboembolic events, have hampered the drug's uptake by high-risk women who should benefit from its preventive effects. Among the strategies to overcome such obstacles to preventive tamoxifen, two novel and potentially safer modes of delivery of this agent are discussed in this paper. Low-dose tamoxifen, expected to confer fewer adverse events, is being investigated in both clinical biomarker-based trials and observational studies. A series of systemic biomarkers (including lipid and insulin-like growth factor levels) and tissue biomarkers (including Ki-67) are known to be favorably affected by conventional tamoxifen dosing and have been shown to be modulated in a direction consistent with a putative anti-cancer effect. These findings suggest possible beneficial clinical preventive effects by low-dose tamoxifen regimens and they are supported by observational studies. An alternative approach is topical administration of active tamoxifen metabolites directly onto the breast, the site where the cancer is to be prevented. Avoidance of systemic administration is expected to reduce the distribution of drug to tissues susceptible to tamoxifen-induced toxicity. Clinical trials of topical tamoxifen with biological endpoints are still ongoing whereas pharmacokinetic studies have already shown that appropriate formulations of drug successfully penetrate the skin to reach breast tissue, where a preventive effect is sought.