Tamoxifen is an antagonist of the estrogen receptor in breast tissue. It has been the standard endocrine (anti-estrogen) therapy for hormone-positive early breast cancer, although aromatase inhibitors have been proposed for postmenopausal women.
Some breast cancer cells require estrogen to grow. Estrogen binds to and activates the estrogen receptor in these cells. Tamoxifen is metabolized into compounds that also bind to the estrogen receptor but do not activate it. Furthermore tamoxifen prevents estrogen from binding to its receptor. Hence breast cancer cell growth is blocked.
Tamoxifen was discovered by ICI Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) and is sold under the trade names Nolvadex, Istubal, and Valodex. However, the drug, even before its patent expiration, was and still is widely referred to by its generic name "tamoxifen."
Tamoxifen is currently used for the treatment of both early and advanced ER+ (estrogen receptor positive) breast cancer in pre- and post-menopausal women. Additionally, it is the most common hormone treatment for male breast cancer. It is also approved by the FDA for the prevention of breast cancer in women at high risk of developing the disease. It has been further approved for the reduction of contralateral (in the opposite breast) cancer.
Global sales of tamoxifen in 2001 were $1,024 million.
Since the expiration of the patent in 2002, it is now widely available as a generic drug around the world. Barr Labs Inc had challenged the patent (which in 1992 was ruled unenforcable) but later came to an agreement with Zeneca to licence the patent and sell tamoxifen at close to Zeneca's price.
As of 2004, tamoxifen was the world's largest selling hormonal drug for the treatment of breast cancer.
In the US, 20 mg tamoxifen tablets cost under $20 per month in quantity. In the UK, the NHS pays £1.90 a month (patients receive them either free or for the standard prescription charge of £7.10 in England, £4 in Scotland, £3 in Northern Ireland and free in Wales). Other countries report similar prices.
In 2006, the large STAR clinical study concluded that raloxifene is equally effective in reducing the incidence of breast cancer, but after an average 4-year follow-up there were 36% fewer uterine cancers and 29% fewer blood clots in women taking raloxifene than in women taking tamoxifen, although the difference is not statistically significant.
In 2005, the ATAC trial showed that after average 68 months following a 5 year adjuvant treatment, the group that received anastrozole (Arimidex) had significantly better results than the tamoxifen group in measures like disease free survival, but no overall mortality benefit. Data from the trial suggest that anastrozole should be the preferred medication for postmenopausal women with localized breast cancer that is estrogen receptor (ER) positive. Another study found that the risk of recurrence was reduced 40% (with some risk of bone fracture) and that ER negative patients also benefited from switching to anastrozole.
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