In many estrogen responsive systems the isomers of tamoxifen are known to have different biological character-the trans isomer is generally an antagonist and the cis isomer an agonist. Attempts to similarly characterize the isomers of hydroxytamoxifen (which differ greatly in their affinity for the estrogen receptor) are shown to be complicated by their facile isomerization. This isomerization was studied in cultures of estrogen receptor positive MCF-7 human breast cancer cells and monitored by HPLC under reversed phase conditions. Hydroxytamoxifen isomers that are initially 99% pure, undergo a time and temperature dependent isomerization, so that after 2 days in tissue culture medium at 37°C they have isomerized to the extent of 20%. This isomerization occurs in the cell-free medium alone and cannot be attributed to a metabolic conversion by the cells. The isomerization occurs much more slowly at 4 than at 37° C and can be reduced considerably by various antioxidants (butylated hydroxytoluene, ascorbate, α-tocopherol, retinoic acid and retinal); however, at concentrations that block isomerization, these antioxidants are toxic to the cells. Although the medium contains both the cis and trans isomers of hydroxytamoxifen, the MCF-7 cells preferentially accumulate the trans isomer and the material associated with the nuclear estrogen receptor is, in all cases, mainly the higher affinity trans isomer. A similar preference of the estrogen receptor for the trans isomer is seen with diethylstilbestrol, resulting again in almost exclusive accumulation of the trans isomer in the receptor binding site. These experiments indicate the importance of verifying the isomer compositions of easily isomerizable non-steroidal estrogens and antiestrogens, such as diethylstilbestrol and hydroxytamoxifen, both in stock solutions and in experimental samples (especially those derived from receptor-associated material), so as to ascertain that the activity of the individual isomers is being correctly assigned.
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