The use of drugs, which inhibit estrogen biosynthesis, is an attractive treatment for postmenopausal women with hormone-dependent breast cancer. Estrogen deprivation is most specifically achieved using inhibitors which block the last stage in the biosynthetic sequence, i.e., the conversion of androgens to estrogens by the aromatase enzyme.
Recently, a new generation of aromatase inhibitors has been developed. Among these, letrozole (Femara) appears to be the most potent. When given orally in milligram amounts per day to postmenopausal women, the drug almost totally inhibits peripheral aromatase and causes a marked reduction in circulating estrogens to levels that are often undetectable in conventional assays. Similarly, neoadjuvant studies demonstrate that letrozole substantially inhibits aromatase activity in both malignant and nonmalignant breast tissues, and markedly suppresses endogenous estrogens within the breast cancers. These studies also illustrate anti-estrogenic and anti-proliferative effects of letrozole in estrogen receptor (ER)-rich tumors. Thus, tumor expression of progesterone receptors and the cell-cycle marker Ki67 is significantly and consistently reduced with treatment.
Additionally, clear pathological responses as evidenced by decreased cellularity and increased fibrosis are seen in the majority of cases. These results translated into clinical benefit in a series of 24 breast cancers treated neoadjuvantly with letrozole (either 2.5 or 10 mg): tumor volume reductions > 25% were observed in 23 women, and > 50% reductions in 18 patients. Pathological and clinical effects are seen much more consistently than with tamoxifen. Thus, in a multicenter randomized trial of letrozole vs. tamoxifen (PE 024), clinical study outcomes were superior for letrozole in comparison with tamoxifen with regard to overall tumor response and an increase in the proportion of patients treated by breast conserving surgery. Letrozole has also been used in advanced breast cancer, both as second-line hormone treatment following tamoxifen failure, and more recently as first-line therapy. Trials of second-line treatment in which letrozole has been compared with either older aromatase inhibitors or progestins have shown equivalent or superior clinical activity and improved tolerability favoring letrozole. In first-line comparison with tamoxifen in metastatic disease, a phase III trial of over 900 postmenopausal women showed letrozole to be significantly better than tamoxifen in terms of overall tumor response rates, clinical benefit, and time to treatment failure. In summary, letrozole is an exceptionally potent and specific endocrine agent. In patients with ER-rich tumors, high rates of pathological and clinical response have been documented, and large phase III trials against established treatments such as tamoxifen and progestin suggest superior (or at least equivalent) clinical efficacy. Letrozole is a drug of immense potential and in the future is likely to occupy a central role in the management of postmenopausal women with hormone-dependent breast cancer.
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