Alterations in cellular retinol metabolism contribute to differential retinoid responsiveness in normal human mammary epithelial cells versus breast cancer cells

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The present study was undertaken to compare ROH growth responsiveness between normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs), estrogen receptor positive (MCF-7) and negative (MDA-MB-231) breast cancer cells, and assess whether this responsiveness is correlated with differences in ROH metabolism, particularly RA synthesis. HMECs were markedly more growth sensitive to a physiological dose of ROH than breast cancer cells, exhibiting a significant decrease in cell number by 48 h and > 70% decrease by 144 h. In comparison, numbers of MCF-7s were only decreased 32% by 144h. MDA-MB-231 cells were not affected. However, HMECs and MCF-7 cells displayed similar growth responsiveness to 1 μM RA, while MDA-MB-231 cells were minimally affected. Although the initial rates and extent of ROH uptake were comparable among cell types, ROH levels in HMECs progressively decreased to 20% of the peak by 24 h and ≤ 10% by 72 h. In contrast, ROH levels in the cancer cells remained relatively constant through 48 h. The decrease in HMEC ROH was attributable to greater metabolism as evidenced by rapid and predominant retinyl ester formation. HMECs also produced ∼5 times more RA from ROH than MCF-7s and ∼10 times more than MDA MB-231 cells. Our results demonstrate that normal HMECs are markedly more responsive to the growth inhibitory effects of ROH than breast cancer cells, and that this responsiveness is associated with greater ROH metabolism including greater RA synthesis. These data suggest that altered ROH metabolism may be a factor in breast cancer progression.

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