Background: Women with HER2-overexpressing breast cancers have poor prognosis, and many are resistant to the HER2 monoclonal antibody trastuzumab. A subgroup of HER2-overexpressing tumors also express p95HER2, an amino terminally truncated receptor that has kinase activity. Because p95HER2 cannot bind to trastuzumab but should be responsive to the HER2 tyrosine kinase inhibitor lapatinib, we compared the sensitivity of tumors expressing p95HER2 and tumors expressing the full-length HER2 receptor to these agents.
Methods: MCF-7 and T47D breast cancer cells were stably transfected with either full-length HER2 or p95HER2. We studied the effects of trastuzumab and lapatinib on receptor signaling, cell proliferation, and the growth of xenograft tumors. A paraffin-based immunofluorescence assay was developed to study the association between p95HER2 expression and sensitivity to trastuzumab in patients with advanced breast cancer. All statistical tests were two-sided.
Results: Treatment of p95HER2-expressing cells with lapatinib inhibited p95HER2 phosphorylation, reduced downstream phosphorylation of Akt and mitogen-activated protein kinases, inhibited cell growth (MCF-7p95HER2 clones, lapatinib versus control, mean growth inhibition = 57.6% versus 22.6%, difference = 35%, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 22.5% to 47.3%; P<.001; T47Dp95HER2 clones, lapatinib versus control, mean growth inhibition = 36.8% versus 20%, difference = 16.8%, 95% CI = 11.3% to 22.3%, P<.001), and inhibited growth of MCF-7p95HER2 xenograft tumors (lapatinib versus control, mean = 288.8 versus 435 mm3, difference = 146.2 mm3, CI = 73.8 to 218.5 mm3, P = .002). By contrast, treatment with trastuzumab had no effect on any of these parameters. Of 46 patients with metastatic breast cancer who were treated with trastuzumab, only one of nine patients (11.1%) expressing p95HER2 responded to trastuzumab (with a partial response), whereas 19 of the 37 patients (51.4%) with tumors expressing full-length HER2 achieved either a complete (five patients) or a partial (14 patients) response (P = .029).
Conclusions: Breast tumors that express p95HER2 are resistant to trastuzumab and may require alternative or additional anti-HER2-targeting strategies.