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Ketoconazole, an antifungal agent, inhibits in vitro C17-C20 lyase, an enzyme involved in androgen biosynthesis. Since adrenal and ovarian androgens are the main precursors of oestrogens in postmenopausal women, the endocrine and therapeutic effects of high dose ketoconazole (400 mg three times a day) were evaluated in 14 postmenopausal women with advanced breast cancer. Testosterone levels were suppressed significantly (37%, P less than 0.025), as was dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate, and androstenedione levels showed a similar but non-significant fall. Seventeen hydroxyprogesterone levels rose significantly, as would be expected if C17-C20 lyase was inhibited. There was no suppression of cortisol or oestrone levels. There was a small suppression of oestradiol concentrations, reflecting a decrease in its precursor, testosterone. Sex hormone binding globulin levels rose, which may be due to a decrease in testosterone. All the changes are compatible with C17-C20 lyase as a major site of action in vivo. No responses occurred in 12 patients treated with ketoconazole alone, but in 2 patients who were progressing on aminoglutethimide, testosterone levels were suppressed and in one patient a partial response occurred. Ketoconazole was poorly tolerated due to gastrointestinal toxicity. This study shows that C17-C20 lyase is a potential target for hormone therapy, and that sequential blockade of enzymes involved in oestrogen biosynthesis should be further evaluated.


Journal article


Br J Cancer

Publication Date





493 - 496


17-alpha-Hydroxyprogesterone, Aged, Aged, 80 and over, Androstenedione, Breast Neoplasms, Dehydroepiandrosterone, Estradiol, Estrone, Female, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Hydroxyprogesterones, Ketoconazole, Menopause, Middle Aged, Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin, Testosterone