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Analytical Cellular Pathology
Volume 20 (2000), Issue 2-3, Pages 99-113

Morphological Evidence for a Subpopulation Selection Effect by Estrogen and Antiestrogen Treatments in the Heterogeneous MCF-7 Cell Line

Jacqueline Palmari,1 France Wallet,2 Julien Berard,2 Yolande Berthois,2 Pierre Marie Martin,2 and Christophe Dussert2

1Département de Physique des Interactions Photons‐Matière, case EC1, Faculté des Sciences de St Jérôme, 13397, Marseille Cedex 20, France
2Laboratoire de Cancérologie Expérimentale, IFR Jean Roche, Faculté de Médecine Secteur Nord, Boulevard Pierre Dramard, 13916 Marseille Cedex 20, France

Received 6 October 1999; Accepted 3 March 2000

Copyright © 2000 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Recently, we developed a method to quantitatively study tumour cell heterogeneity in terms of both nuclear size and estrogen receptor (ER) content by image cytometry. The method, previously used to analyse the proliferation of the breast cancer cell line MCF‐7, was applied here to analyse the growth of this cell line under estradiol (E2), hydroxytamoxifen (OH‐TAM), and both E2 and OH‐TAM treatments. The method extracts characteristic parameters of single nuclei and features that measure the global and local organisation of the cells in their growing phase. Modifications of the heterogeneity of the cell line are emphasised through phenotypic changes and modifications of the spatial organisation of the cells. The hormone (E2) generates a very fast growth of cells with small nuclei that became ER negative in the long term. The antihormone (OH‐TAM) produces a gradual selection of ER negative or poorly positive cells with large nuclei. These modifications are reversed when E2 and OH‐TAM are simultaneously used. Moreover, estradiol induces a permissive context of proliferation, whereas hydroxytamoxifen acts only on some subpopulations. The combination of cell count, cytomorphology, and cell organisation revealed the magnitude of the potential of structuration of hormones or antihormones on in vitro growing cells.