Oestrogen receptors (ERs) in breast tumours are highly heterogeneous. In previous studies we have shown that at least four isoforms may exist. These migrate in isoelectric focusing (IEF) gels to isoelectric points (pI values) 6·1, 6·3, 6·6 and 6·8. Of these the first (pI 6·1) corresponds to the 8S isoform as detected by sucrose gradient fractionation, while the others all sediment at 4S. In a series of 66 breast tumours it was found that those at pI 6·3 and pI 6·8 were significantly correlated with the presence of progesterone receptors.
To characterize the isoforms more fully, ER isoforms labelled by [3H]oestradiol binding were fractionated by IEF. The results were compared with those obtained after sodium dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) and immunoblotting using the H222 anti-ER monoclonal antibody. In other experiments, tumour ER isoforms were covalently labelled with [ring-3H] tamoxifen aziridine and separated by IEF. The individual isoforms were electroeluted from the IEF gel and further analysed by SDS-PAGE and non-denaturing PAGE. In summary, the evidence shows that the isoforms of pI values 6·3, 6·8 and 6·6 have molecular masses of 50, 65 and 70 kDa respectively. In addition, all three of these isoforms, i.e. the pI 6·3, 6·8 and 6·6 isoforms, could form dimers.
We conclude that the three isoforms sedimenting at 4S have the capacity to form dimers and thus may have the potential for binding to oestrogen response elements in the genome.