Working Smarter, Not Harder: Use of Anti-Estrogen Therapy to Battle Recurrent Ovarian Cancer

The Gynecologic Oncology department of the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center took a page out of the breast cancer treatment “playbook,” and conducted a single institution Phase II clinical trial using letrozole (Femara®) to treat recurrent, platinum and taxane resistant, high-grade cancer of the ovary and peritoneum. …The trial investigators concluded that 26% (8/31 pts.) of patients with ER+ … ovarian and primary peritoneal cancer derived a clinical benefit (stable disease (SD) + partial response (PR)) after treatment with letrozole (Femara®).

Pursuant to the breast cancer standard of care, breast tissue tumor is routinely analyzed to determine if it is “estrogen receptor positive” (ER positive or ER+), meaning that tumor growth is fueled by the hormone estrogen. It is well-known in the breast cancer area that hormonal therapy is a very effective treatment against breast cancer that is ER+. Sometimes referred to as “anti-estrogen therapy,” hormonal therapy blocks the ability of the hormone estrogen to turn on and stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

For decades, the anti-estrogen therapy of choice for treatment of ER+ breast cancer was tamoxifen. In 2005, several world-wide clinical trials reported that aromatase inhibitors (specifically, anastrozole (Arimidex®), exemestane (Aromasin®), and letrozole (Femara®) were more effective than tamoxifen in post-menopausal women with ER+ breast cancer. Aromatase inhibitor drug use is currently the standard of care for treatment of post-menopausal women with ER+ breast cancer, while tamoxifen remains the hormonal treatment of choice for pre-menopausal women.

The Gynecologic Oncology department of the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center took a page out of the breast cancer treatment “playbook,” and conducted a single institution Phase II clinical trial using letrozole (Femara®) to treat recurrent, platinum and taxane resistant, high-grade cancer of the ovary and peritoneum.

Thirty-three patients enrolled in the Phase II clinical trial, and each had measurable disease that tested ER+ pursuant to trial eligibility criteria. Twenty-three patients (74%) had received three or more prior chemotherapy regimens. Letrozole (Femara®) was administered at a dose of 2.5 mg orally once daily until disease progression or toxicity occurred. The median patient age was 63 years (ranging from 38 to 83 years).

The 31 patients evaluable for response received a total of 81 cycles (4 weeks per cycle) of therapy (ranging from 1 to 14 cycles per patient). The median treatment duration was 8 weeks (ranging from 4 to 52 weeks). The trial investigators reported that (i) none of the patients had a complete response (CR), (ii) 1 (3%) had a partial response (PR), and (iii) 7 (23%) had stable disease (SD). The median duration of clinical benefit (SD and PR) was 9 weeks (ranging from 7 to 46 weeks). The median follow-up for all patients was 25 weeks. All evaluable patients were monitored for toxicity. The most common adverse effects were fatigue (36%) and diaphoresis (21%). No grade 3 or 4 toxicities were reported, and no patients discontinued treatment owing to adverse effects. Eighteen patients (58%) went on to receive additional therapy with other agents.

Based upon the results above, the trial investigators concluded that 26% (8/31 pts.) of patients with ER+, platinum- and taxane-resistant, high-grade ovarian and primary peritoneal cancer derived a clinical benefit (stable disease (SD) + partial response (PR)) after treatment with letrozole (Femara®).


Comment: Based upon the references listed above and below, it appears that the opening of clinical trials that utilize anti-estrogen therapy to treat ER+ ovarian cancer is long overdue. The “take away” from the M.D. Anderson clinical trial study results is that an ovarian cancer survivor should request her doctor to test the ovarian cancer tumor tissue obtained from surgery or biopsy for estrogen receptor positivity, so as to determine if she is eligible to use anti-estrogen therapy (within the context of a clinical trial) as part of an overall cancer treatment plan.

It is important to note that letrozole is a low side effect, oral drug. Moreover, M.D. Anderson’s letrozole monotherapy produced a 26% clinical benefit rate among ER+, platinum- and taxane-resistant, ovarian and peritoneal cancer patients, despite the fact that approximately three-quarters of the clinical trial patients were heavily pretreated with multiple lines of chemotherapy prior to their trial enrollment. It is promising to consider the potential clinical benefit that could be generated by anti-estrogen therapy in a neoadjuvant or adjuvant ovarian cancer treatment setting.

Additional Anti-Estrogen Therapy/Ovarian Cancer References:

  • Estrogen-regulated gene expression predicts response to endocrine therapy in patients with ovarian cancer, Walker G et. al.; Gynecol Oncol. 2007 Sep;106(3):461-8. Epub 2007 Jul 10. (“OBJECTIVE: To explore the predictive value of estrogen-regulated gene changes as indicators of sensitivity in ovarian cancer patients treated with the aromatase inhibitor Letrozole. … CONCLUSION: These results suggest that expression levels of certain proteins in ovarian cancers are estrogen-regulated and could help identify patients who would benefit from endocrine therapy.” [i.e., anti-estrogen therapy])
  • Antiestrogen therapy is active in selected ovarian cancer cases: the use of letrozole in estrogen receptor-positive patients, Smyth JF et. al.; Clin Cancer Res. 2007 Jun 15;13(12):3617-22 (“PURPOSE: To evaluate the efficacy of the aromatase inhibitor letrozole in preselected estrogen receptor (ER)-positive relapsed epithelial ovarian cancer patients and to identify markers that predict endocrine-sensitive disease. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: This was a phase II study of letrozole 2.5 mg daily until clinical or marker evidence of disease progression in previously treated ER-positive ovarian cancer patients with a rising CA125 that had progressed according to Rustin’s criteria. The primary end point was response according to CA125 and response evaluation criteria in solid tumors (RECIST) criteria. Marker expression was measured by semiquantitative immunohistochemistry in sections from the primary tumor. RESULTS: Of 42 patients evaluable for CA125 response, 7 (17%) had a response (decrease of >50%), and 11 (26%) patients had not progressed (doubling of CA125) following 6 months on treatment. The median time taken to achieve the CA125 nadir was 13 weeks (range 10-36). Of 33 patients evaluable for radiological response, 3 (9%) had a partial remission, and 14 (42%) had stable disease at 12 weeks. Eleven patients (26%) had a PFS of >6 months. Subgroup analysis according to ER revealed CA125 response rates of 0% (immunoscore, 150-199), 12% (200-249), and 33% (250-300); P = 0.028, chi(2) for trend. Expression levels of HER2, insulin-like growth factor binding protein 5, trefoil factor 1, and vimentin were associated with CA125 changes on treatment. CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study of a hormonal agent in a preselected group of ER-positive ovarian cancer patients. A signature of predictive markers, including low HER2 expression, predicts response.)
  • The efficacy of tamoxifen in patients with advanced epithelial ovarian cancer, Karagol H et. al.; Med Oncol. 2007;24(1):39-43 (“BACKGROUND: Activity of tamoxifen as a salvage therapy in patients with advanced epithelial ovarian cancer was evaluated by a number of studies. In this study, we evaluated efficacy of tamoxifen in our patients with platinum-resistant epithelial ovarian carcinoma. … RESULTS: Twenty-nine eligible patients were included to the study. There were 1 (3%) complete response, 2 (7%) partial response, 6 (21%) stable disease, and 20 (69%) progressive disease. All patients were progressed after initiation of tamoxifen. Median progression-free survival was 4 mo (95% CI: 2.98-5.02). Disease progression of 19 (65%) patients were shown within the first 6 mo after initiation of tamoxifen. Progression-free survival was between 6 and 12 mo for 7 (24%) patients and > or =12 mo for 3 (10%) patients. The median survival after initiation of tamoxifen was 15 mo (95% CI: 7.2-22.8). No toxicity attributable to tamoxifen was seen in any of the patients. The only independent prognostic factor that had a significant predictive value for progression- free survival was the response to tamoxifen treatment (p = 0.043, hazard ratio: 0.12, 95% CI: 0.01-0.94). CONCLUSION: Considering minimal side effects and ability to cause objective responses, there is a place for tamoxifen in treatment of patients with platinum-resistant ovarian cancer. A phase III trial is required to confirm the value of the drug in patients presenting these clinical settings.”)
  • Anastrozole therapy in recurrent ovarian adult granulosa cell tumors: a report of 2 cases, Freeman SA, Modesitt SC; Gynecol Oncol. 2006 Nov;103(2):755-8. Epub 2006 Jul 25 (“BACKGROUND: Ovarian sex cord stromal tumors are frequently hormonally active, and adult granulosa cell tumors often demonstrate estrogen receptor positivity. Thus, hormonal agents have been evaluated as potential treatments for advanced stage or recurrent adult granulosa cell tumors. CASE: Two cases of patients with recurrent adult granulosa cell tumors are presented. Each patient received multiple treatment modalities including chemotherapy and had previously progressed on leuprolide. Both patients were started on anastrozole with subsequent normalization of inhibin B levels and clinical exams. They have been maintained on treatment for 14 and 18 months, respectively, and have tolerated the drug without difficulty. CONCLUSION: Aromatase inhibitors may be a viable treatment option for women with advanced stage or recurrent ovarian adult granulosa cell tumors.”)
  • Hormonal therapy in epithelial ovarian cancer, Rao GG, Miller DS; Expert Rev Anticancer Ther. 2006 Jan;6(1):43-7. (“The ovary is an endocrine and end organ. Hormones and their receptors have been associated with ovarian cancer and may be related to its causation. Some data suggest that hormonal therapies may have an effect on ovarian cancer in palliative settings. The most well studied anticancer drugs are tamoxifen, megestrol acetate, medroxyprogesterone acetate, leuprolide acetate, anastrozole and letrozole. Presently, no hormonal therapy is approved by the US FDA for the treatment of any type of ovarian malignancy or is listed as an active agent by any of the authoritative compendia. Owing to the endocrine associations with ovarian cancer, the minimal side effects of hormonal therapy and the demonstrated activity of hormonal therapies in other endocrine organ-associated malignancies, further study of hormonal therapies for ovarian cancer is warranted.”)
  • Aromatase expression in ovarian epithelial cancers, Cunat S et. al.; J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 Jan;93(1):15-24 (” … Aromatase activity was evaluated in ovarian epithelial cancer (OEC) cell lines by the tritiated water assay and the effects of third-generation aromatase inhibitors (AIs) on aromatase activity and growth were studied. Letrozole and exemestane were able to completely inhibit aromatase activity in BG1 and PEO14 cell lines. Interestingly, both AI showed an antiproliferative effect on the estrogen responsive BG1 cell line co-expressing aromatase and ERalpha. Aromatase expression was found in ovarian epithelial normal tissues and in some ovarian epithelial cancer cells and tissues. This finding raises the possibility that some tumors may respond to estrogen and provides a basis for ascertaining an antimitogenic effect of AI in a subgroup of ovarian epithelial cancers.”)
  • Hormone therapy in epithelial ovarian cancer, Makar AP; Endocr Relat Cancer. 2000 Jun;7(2):85-93 (“Although epidemiologic studies, animal experiments and receptor studies have shown that not only normal ovaries but also many malignant ovarian tumors can be considered as endocrine related and hormone dependent, the place of hormonal therapy in the management of patients with ovarian cancer remains unsettled. Most trials of hormonal treatment in ovarian cancer have been retrospective, involved only limited numbers of patients, and lacked important patient-related data and information pertaining to tumor characteristics. In addition, a variety of hormonal preparations with different degrees of potency and in different dosages were included in these studies. A literature review shows that response to hormonal therapy even in a preterminal setting, is modest, with about 8% objective response but almost no side effects. In a similar patient setting, more toxic therapeutic agents do not yield a better response. The place of hormonal therapy in the management of patients with epithelial ovarian cancer needs more thorough evaluation in well-designed randomized trials.”)

5 thoughts on “Working Smarter, Not Harder: Use of Anti-Estrogen Therapy to Battle Recurrent Ovarian Cancer

  1. Hello,

    I am a recent AOC survivor interested in updates on the use of the Anti-Estrogen Drug -Femara.

    Currently I am in remission after having recently completing surgery and chemo in
    Aug 2009. I am 54 and concerned about the high rate of reoccurrence of my disease so I want to be proactive about future treatment options, especially Femara.

    A recent lab test from my endocrinologist showed that my estrogen and progestrone levels, while still normal, were on the high side of normal and unusually high for someone my age, who had recently undergone a total hysterectomy/debulking surgery for advanced ovarian cancer.

    I plan to ask my doctor to biopsy my tumor for estrogen receptor positivity.

    Thanks in advance,
    Kathie C
    Lewis Center, OH


  2. I used letrozole (Femara®) to treat recurrent malignant ovarian GRANULOSA CELL TUMOR.
    The clinical improvement was very obvious. Malignant cutaneous fistule was closed and regression of size continue for 3 years. Unfortunately the patient died with complicated intestinal obstruction. To get better outcome letrozole should be used since earlier stages rather than reservation for recurrent conditions.


    • Dear Professor Mohamed Nabegh El – Mahallawi MD., PhD., FRCOG,

      Thank you for the comment. I agree with you that estrogen positivity testing and use of anti-hormonal therapy (e.g., Femara(r)) could benefit select ovarian cancer patients. Unfortunately, not as many women test ER+ with respect to ovarian cancer tumors as compared to breast cancer tumors. Due to the lower number of ER+ ovarian cancer tumors, estrogen positivity testing is often overlooked. The approach that you suggest is certainly the approach with respect to breast cancer in the U.S., but, unfortunately, not ovarian cancer. Hopefully this will change in the near future. In addition, the U.S. clinical study format generally begins testing with recurrent cancer patients, and then if successful, the tested drug is further tested in patients with earlier cancer stages. Herceptin(r) is a good example. It was initially tested and FDA-approved for Stage IV HER-2 positive breast cancer, but with time, it was eventually tested by M.D. Anderson for neoadjuvant use.

      The benefit of anti-hormonal therapy is low toxicity. As you know, low toxicity becomes an important issue for ovarian cancer patients, especially those who experience multiply recurrences over time. It is great to hear that you experienced success (i.e., regression for 3 years) with respect to a malignant ovarian granulosa cell tumor.

      As always, we invite any further thoughts or observations that may have in the future regarding ovarian cancer topics, and wish you continued success with the Organisation Gestosis Affiliated and Sponsored Hospitals (OGASH) and Ain Shams University in Cairo.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s