Unraveling the biologic and clinical complexities of HER2

Clin Breast Cancer. 2008 Oct;8(5):392-401. doi: 10.3816/CBC.2008.n.047.


It has been over 20 years since the discovery of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), a tyrosine kinase receptor that is a potent oncoprotein in breast and other cancers and has become an opportune target for therapy. HER2 plays a critical role in normal development, forming homodimers or heterodimers with other HER family members and triggering downstream signaling cascades controlling proliferation, cell survival, and apoptosis. However, amplification of the HER2 gene in cancer cells results in overexpression of HER2 receptors on the cell surface, leading to excessive and dysregulated signaling. HER2-driven signaling also upregulates transcription factors that act on the HER2 promoter, increasing its expression. In breast cancer, HER2 is gene amplified in 20%-25% of primary tumors and is associated with a more aggressive phenotype and poorer prognosis. The key role HER2 plays in tumorigenesis makes it an ideal target for therapy. Trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody against HER2, inhibits downstream signaling and has proven to be effective against HER2-overexpressing metastatic breast cancer both as a single agent and in combination with chemotherapy. Seminal clinical trial data also show that the use of adjuvant trastuzumab in combination with chemotherapy or as a single agent after chemotherapy significantly increases disease-free and overall survival. Lapatinib, a dual tyrosine kinase inhibitor against HER1 and HER2, has been approved in combination with capecitabine for HER2-overexpressing advanced or metastatic breast cancer, which has progressed following previous anthracycline, taxane, and trastuzumab therapy. Other HER2-targeting strategies are also under active investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / pharmacology
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lapatinib
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Quinazolines / pharmacology
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / drug effects
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Trastuzumab


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Quinazolines
  • Lapatinib
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Trastuzumab