Role of the insulin-like growth factor system on an estrogen-dependent cancer phenotype in the MCF-7 human breast cancer cell line.
Foci, nodules of cellular overgrowth, that appear after confluence are an in vitro characteristic of malignant transformation. A well-studied in vitro model of estrogen-dependent tumors is the MCF-7 cell line, derived from a pleural metastasis of a human breast adenocarcinoma. We report that cultivation of MCF-7 cells, using routine methods, results in extensive estrogen-stimulated postconfluent cell accumulation characterized by discrete three-dimensional arrays. Side view Nomarski optical sections revealed these to be principally multicellular foci with occasional domes and pseudoacinar vacuoles. This effect on MCF-7 cell growth occurs in media containing fetal bovine serum but not with calf serum or charcoal-dextran-treated fetal bovine serum unless supplemented with estrogens. Foci formation starts 5-6 days after confluence, and the number of foci generated is a function of the concentration of added estrogens. Foci formation is suppressed by the antiestrogens Tamoxifen and LY 156758. Addition of progesterone, testosterone, or dexamethasone had little or no effect, while various estrogens (ethinyl estradiol, diethylstilbestrol, and moxestrol) induced foci development. Clones derived from single cells of the initial MCF-7 population revealed a wide variance in estrogen-induced foci formation, demonstrating heterogeneity of this tumor cell line. The postconfluent cell growth of the estrogen receptor-deficient cell line, MDA-MB-231, contrasted with MCF-7 by developing an extensive multilayer morphology devoid of discrete structures. The tumorigenic potential of the MCF-7 cells used in our experiments was confirmed by their estrogen-dependent growth in immunosuppressed male BDF1 mice. These data suggest an estrogen receptor-based mechanism for the development of multicellular foci during postconfluent growth of MCF-7 cells. After confluence, foci, in contrast to the quiescent surrounding monolayer, retain proliferating cells. Focus formation, therefore, reflects the heterogeneous responsiveness of these cells to estrogens and should provide a model permitting in vitro comparisons between the progenitor cells of multicellular foci and the monolayer population.