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Kathryn B Horwitz and Carol A Sartorius

Progesterone and progesterone receptors (PR) have a storied albeit controversial history in breast cancers. As endocrine therapies for breast cancer progressed through the twentieth century from oophorectomy to antiestrogens, it was recognized in the 1970s that the presence of estrogen receptors (ER) alone could not efficiently predict treatment responses. PR, an estrogen regulated protein, became the first prognostic and predictive marker of response to endocrine therapies. It remains today as the gold standard for predicting the existence of functional, targetable ER in breast malignancies. PRs were subsequently identified as highly structured transcription factors that regulate diverse physiological processes in breast cancer cells. In the early 2000s, the somewhat surprising finding that prolonged use of synthetic progestin-containing menopausal hormone therapies was associated with increased breast cancer incidence raised new questions about the role of PR in ‘tumorigenesis’. Most recently, PR have been linked to expansion of cancer stem cells that are postulated to be the principal cells reactivated in occult or dormant disease. Other studies establish PR as dominant modulators of ER activity. Together, these findings mark PR as bona fide targets for progestin or antiprogestin therapies, yet their diverse actions have confounded that use. Here we summarize the early history of PR in breast cancer; debunk the theory that progesterone causes cancer; discuss recent discoveries that PR regulate cell heterogeneity; attempt to unify theories describing PR as either good or bad actors in tumors; and discuss emerging areas of research that may help explain this enigmatic hormone and receptor.