Mechanisms of tumor regression and resistance to estrogen deprivation and fulvestrant in a model of estrogen receptor-positive, HER-2/neu-positive breast cancer

Cancer Res. 2006 Aug 15;66(16):8266-73. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-05-4045.


HER-2/neu in breast cancer is associated with tamoxifen resistance, but little data exist on its interaction with estrogen deprivation or fulvestrant. Here, we used an in vivo xenograft model of estrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer with HER-2/neu overexpression (MCF7/HER-2/neu-18) to investigate mechanisms of growth inhibition and treatment resistance. MCF7/HER-2/neu-18 tumors were growth inhibited by estrogen deprivation and with fulvestrant, but resistance developed in 2 to 3 months. Inhibited tumors had reductions in ER, insulin-like growth factor-I receptor (IGF-IR), phosphorylated HER-2/neu (p-HER-2/neu), and phosphorylated p42/44 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p-MAPK). p27 was increased especially in tumors sensitive to estrogen deprivation. Tumors with acquired resistance to these therapies had complete loss of ER, increased p-HER-2/neu, increased p-MAPK, and reduced p27. In contrast, IGF-IR and phosphorylated AKT (p-AKT) levels were markedly reduced in these resistant tumors. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib, which can block EGFR/HER-2/neu signaling, significantly delayed the emergence of resistance to both estrogen deprivation and fulvestrant. Levels of p-MAPK and p-AKT decreased with gefitinib, whereas high ER levels were restored. Eventually, however, tumors progressed in mice treated with gefitinib combined with estrogen deprivation or fulvestrant accompanied again by loss of ER and IGF-IR, increased p-HER-2/neu, high p-MAPK, and now increased p-AKT. Thus, estrogen deprivation and fulvestrant can effectively inhibit HER-2/neu-overexpressing tumors but resistance develops quickly. EGFR/HER-2/neu inhibitors can delay resistance, but reactivation of HER-2/neu and signaling through AKT leads to tumor regrowth. Combining endocrine therapy with EGFR/HER-2/neu inhibitors should be tested in clinical breast cancer, but a more complete blockade of EGFR/HER-2/neu may be optimal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Estrogens / deficiency
  • Estrogens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / analysis*
  • Transplantation, Heterologous


  • Estrogens
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Receptor, ErbB-2