Background: The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR/HER1) and its downstream signaling events are important for regulating cell growth and behavior in many epithelial tumors types. In breast cancer, the role of EGFR is complex and appears to vary relative to important clinical features including estrogen receptor (ER) status. To investigate EGFR-signaling using a genomics approach, several breast basal-like and luminal epithelial cell lines were examined for sensitivity to EGFR inhibitors. An EGFR-associated gene expression signature was identified in the basal-like SUM102 cell line and was used to classify a diverse set of sporadic breast tumors.
Results: In vitro, breast basal-like cell lines were more sensitive to EGFR inhibitors compared to luminal cell lines. The basal-like tumor derived lines were also the most sensitive to carboplatin, which acted synergistically with cetuximab. An EGFR-associated signature was developed in vitro, evaluated on 241 primary breast tumors; three distinct clusters of genes were evident in vivo, two of which were predictive of poor patient outcomes. These EGFR-associated poor prognostic signatures were highly expressed in almost all basal-like tumors and many of the HER2+/ER- and Luminal B tumors.
Conclusion: These results suggest that breast basal-like cell lines are sensitive to EGFR inhibitors and carboplatin, and this combination may also be synergistic. In vivo, the EGFR-signatures were of prognostic value, were associated with tumor subtype, and were uniquely associated with the high expression of distinct EGFR-RAS-MEK pathway genes.