Oleic acid, the main monounsaturated fatty acid of olive oil, suppresses Her-2/neu (erbB-2) expression and synergistically enhances the growth inhibitory effects of trastuzumab (Herceptin) in breast cancer cells with Her-2/neu oncogene amplification

Ann Oncol. 2005 Mar;16(3):359-71. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdi090. Epub 2005 Jan 10.


Background: The relationship between the intake of olive oil, the richest dietary source of the monounsaturated fatty acid oleic acid (OA; 18:1n-9), and breast cancer risk and progression has become a controversial issue. Moreover, it has been suggested that the protective effects of olive oil against breast cancer may be due to some other components of the oil rather than to a direct effect of OA.

Methods: Using flow cytometry, western blotting, immunofluorescence microscopy, metabolic status (MTT), soft-agar colony formation, enzymatic in situ labeling of apoptosis-induced DNA double-strand breaks (TUNEL assay analyses), and caspase-3-dependent poly-ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) cleavage assays, we characterized the effects of exogenous supplementation with OA on the expression of Her-2/neu oncogene, which plays an active role in breast cancer etiology and progression. In addition, we investigated the effects of OA on the efficacy of trastuzumab (Herceptin), a humanized monoclonal antibody binding with high affinity to the ectodomain of the Her-2/neu-coded p185(Her-2/neu) oncoprotein. To study these issues we used BT-474 and SKBr-3 breast cancer cells, which naturally exhibit amplification of the Her-2/neu oncogene.

Results: Flow cytometric analyses demonstrated a dramatic (up to 46%) reduction of cell surface-associated p185(Her-2/neu) following treatment of the Her-2/neu-overexpressors BT-474 and SK-Br3 with OA. Indeed, this effect was comparable to that found following exposure to optimal concentrations of trastuzumab (up to 48% reduction with 20 microg/ml trastuzumab). Remarkably, the concurrent exposure to OA and suboptimal concentrations of trastuzumab (5 microg/ml) synergistically down-regulated Her-2/neu expression, as determined by flow cytometry (up to 70% reduction), immunoblotting, and immunofluorescence microscopy studies. The nature of the cytotoxic interaction between OA and trastuzumab revealed a strong synergism, as assessed by MTT-based cell viability and anchorage-independent soft-agar colony formation assays. Moreover, OA co-exposure synergistically enhanced trastuzumab efficacy towards Her-2/neu overexpressors by promoting DNA fragmentation associated with apoptotic cell death, as confirmed by TUNEL and caspase-3-dependent PARP cleavage. In addition, treatment with OA and trastuzumab dramatically increased both the expression and the nuclear accumulation of p27(Kip1), a cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor playing a key role in the onset and progression of Her-2/neu-related breast cancer. Finally, OA co-exposure significantly enhanced the ability of trastuzumab to inhibit signaling pathways downstream of Her-2/neu, including phosphoproteins such as AKT and MAPK.

Conclusions: These findings demonstrate that OA, the main monounsaturated fatty acid of olive oil, suppresses Her-2/neu overexpression, which, in turn, interacts synergistically with anti-Her-2/neu immunotherapy by promoting apoptotic cell death of breast cancer cells with Her-2/neu oncogene amplification. This previously unrecognized property of OA offers a novel molecular mechanism by which individual fatty acids may regulate the malignant behavior of breast cancer cells and therefore be helpful in the design of future epidemiological studies and, eventually, dietary counseling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / pharmacology
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Apoptosis
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Dietary Fats
  • Drug Interactions
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • In Situ Nick-End Labeling
  • Oleic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Olive Oil
  • Plant Oils / chemistry
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / biosynthesis*
  • Trastuzumab
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Dietary Fats
  • Olive Oil
  • Plant Oils
  • Oleic Acid
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Trastuzumab