Tamoxifen is an antagonist of the estrogen receptor in breast tissue via its active metabolite, hydroxytamoxifen. In other tissues such as the endometrium, it behaves as an agonist, and thus may be characterized as a mixed agonist/antagonist. Tamoxifen is the usual endocrine (anti-estrogen) therapy for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in pre-menopausal women, and is also a standard in post-menopausal women although aromatase inhibitors are also frequently used in that setting.
Some breast cancer cells require estrogen to grow. Estrogen binds to and activates the estrogen receptor in these cells. Tamoxifen is metabolized into compounds that also bind to the estrogen receptor but do not activate it. Because of this competitive antagonism, tamoxifen acts like a key broken off in the lock that prevents any other key from being inserted, preventing estrogen from binding to its receptor. Hence breast cancer cell growth is blocked.
Tamoxifen was discovered by pharmaceutical company Imperial Chemical Industries (now AstraZeneca) and is sold under the trade names Nolvadex, Istubal, and Valodex. However, the drug, even before its patent expiration, was and still is widely referred to by its generic name “tamoxifen.”