Background: Prolonged exposure of breast carcinoma cells in vitro to tamoxifen results in tamoxifen resistance. Tamoxifen-resistant cells express increased HER-2/neu mRNA and protein. The objective of this study was to determine whether patients with metastatic or locally advanced breast carcinoma who have negative serum HER-2/neu status at the initiation of first-line hormone therapy with letrozole or tamoxifen convert to positive serum HER-2/neu status at the time of disease progression and to determine whether serum HER-2/neu conversion to positive status is associated with response to therapy and overall survival.
Methods: Serum samples were obtained at baseline and at the time of disease progression from 240 patients who initially had negative serum HER-2/neu status (< 15 ng/mL). A manual microtiter, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay that was specific for the extracellular domain of the HER-2/neu (c-erbB-2) oncoprotein product was used to quantitate serum levels.
Results: Among 240 patients, 61 patients (26%) converted from serum HER-2/neu negative to positive (> 15 ng/mL) at the time of disease progression. Thirty-two of 129 patients (25%) who were treated with tamoxifen and 29 of 111 patients (26%) who were treated with letrozole became converted to positive serum HER-2/neu status at the time of disease progression. The response rate and the time to disease progression on first-line hormone therapy were not affected by serum HER-2/neu conversion. The survival of patients who converted to positive serum HER-2/neu status was significantly shorter compared with the survival of patients who remained negative for serum HER-2/neu. A multivariate analysis revealed that conversion to positive serum HER-2/neu status was an independent prognostic variable for survival.
Conclusions: Conversion to positive serum HER-2/neu status occurred in approximately 25% of patients who received first-line hormone therapy. Conversion to serum HER-2/neu-positive status occurred with equal frequency in antiestrogen and aromatase-inhibitor therapy. The current results showed that serum conversion to HER-2/neu-positive status was an independent risk factor for decreased survival in patients with breast carcinoma.