Open Access Research article

GnRH receptor activation competes at a low level with growth signaling in stably transfected human breast cell lines

Kevin Morgan1*, Colette Meyer2, Nicola Miller1, Andrew H Sims2, Ilgin Cagnan2, Dana Faratian2, David J Harrison2, Robert P Millar1 and Simon P Langdon2*

Author Affiliations

1 Medical Research Council Human Reproductive Sciences Unit, The Queen's Medical Research Institute, Little France Crescent, Old Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh EH16 4TJ, UK

2 Breakthrough Research Unit and Division of Pathology, Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Crewe Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2XU, UK

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:476  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-476

Published: 3 November 2011



Gonadotrophin releasing hormone (GnRH) analogs lower estrogen levels in pre-menopausal breast cancer patients. GnRH receptor (GnRH-R) activation also directly inhibits the growth of certain cells. The applicability of GnRH anti-proliferation to breast cancer was therefore analyzed.


GnRH-R expression in 298 primary breast cancer samples was measured by quantitative immunofluorescence. Levels of functional GnRH-R in breast-derived cell lines were assessed using 125I-ligand binding and stimulation of 3H-inositol phosphate production. Elevated levels of GnRH-R were stably expressed in cells by transfection. Effects of receptor activation on in vitro cell growth were investigated in comparison with IGF-I and EGF receptor inhibition, and correlated with intracellular signaling using western blotting.


GnRH-R immunoscoring was highest in hormone receptor (triple) negative and grade 3 breast tumors. However prior to transfection, functional endogenous GnRH-R were undetectable in four commonly studied breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7, ZR-75-1, T47D and MDA-MB-231). After transfection with GnRH-R, high levels of cell surface GnRH-R were detected in SVCT and MDA-MB-231 clones while low-moderate levels of GnRH-R occurred in MCF-7 clones and ZR-75-1 clones. MCF-7 sub-clones with high levels of GnRH-R were isolated following hygromycin phosphotransferase transfection. High level cell surface GnRH-R enabled induction of high levels of 3H-inositol phosphate and modest growth-inhibition in SVCT cells. In contrast, growth of MCF-7, ZR-75-1 or MDA-MB-231 clones was unaffected by GnRH-R activation. Cell growth was inhibited by IGF-I or EGF receptor inhibitors. IGF-I receptor inhibitor lowered levels of p-ERK1/2 in MCF-7 clones. Washout of IGF-I receptor inhibitor resulted in transient hyper-elevation of p-ERK1/2, but co-addition of GnRH-R agonist did not alter the dynamics of ERK1/2 re-phosphorylation.


Breast cancers exhibit a range of GnRH-R immunostaining, with higher levels of expression found in triple-negative and grade 3 cancers. However, functional cell surface receptors are rare in cultured cells. Intense GnRH-R signaling in transfected breast cancer cells did not markedly inhibit growth, in contrast to transfected HEK 293 cells indicating the importance of intracellular context. GnRH-R signaling could not counteract IGF-I receptor-tyrosine kinase addiction in MCF-7 cells. These results suggest that combinatorial strategies with growth factor inhibitors will be needed to enhance GnRH anti-proliferative effects in breast cancer