HER kinase axis receptor dimer partner switching occurs in response to EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibition despite failure to block cellular proliferation

Cancer Res. 2010 Mar 1;70(5):1989-99. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-3326. Epub 2010 Feb 16.


The human epidermal receptor (HER) axis consists of a dynamic, interconnected family of receptors that make critical contributions to a number of malignancies. Therapeutics targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) are unable to effectively inhibit tumor growth in a majority of cases. These tumors are assumed to possess primary resistance to anti-EGFR therapies, but the consequence of inhibiting EGFR in these tumors is unclear. We established isogenic cell lines by prolonged gefitinib treatment at concentrations that are in excess of that which is required for complete EGFR kinase inhibition but only minimally affected growth. Subsequently, we monitored the ligand-dependent HER profiles based on receptor expression, phosphorylation, and dimerization in conjunction with measurements of cellular susceptibility to gefitinib. Chronic EGFR kinase inhibition rapidly switched the HER network from dependence on EGFR to HER2. However, both receptors activated the critical signaling proteins AKT and mitogen-activated protein kinase, and in both cases, HER3 was the common association partner. Remarkably, the switch in receptor dimers caused diminished susceptibility to EGFR-targeted inhibitors gefitinib and cetuximab but acquired susceptibility to the HER2-targeted inhibitor pertuzumab. Overall, our study indicates that the EGFR pathway is responsive to EGFR inhibiting therapies that are not dependent on EGFR for their growth and survival, thus challenging the current definition of primary therapeutic resistance. Furthermore, EGFR kinase inhibition induces HER kinase receptors to engage in alternative dimerization that can ultimately influence therapeutic selection and responsiveness.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Growth Processes / drug effects
  • Cell Growth Processes / physiology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Dimerization
  • Down-Regulation / drug effects
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • ErbB Receptors / biosynthesis
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gefitinib
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Phosphorylation
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Quinazolines / pharmacology*
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / biosynthesis
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / metabolism
  • Receptor, ErbB-4
  • Signal Transduction
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects


  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Quinazolines
  • ERBB4 protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Erbb4 protein, mouse
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Receptor, ErbB-3
  • Receptor, ErbB-4
  • Gefitinib