High heregulin expression is associated with activated HER3 and may define an actionable biomarker in patients with squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck

PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56765. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056765. Epub 2013 Feb 28.


Purpose: Tumors with oncogenic dependencies on the HER family of receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) often respond well to targeted inhibition. Our previous work suggested that many cell lines derived from squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (SCCHNs) depend on autocrine signaling driven by HER2/3 dimerization and high-level co-expression of HRG. Additionally, results from a Phase I trial of MEHD7495A, a dual-action antibody that blocks ligand binding to EGFR and HER3, suggest that high-level HRG expression was associated with clinical response in SCCHN patients. Here we explore the hypothesis that high-level HRG expression defines a subpopulation of SCCHNs with activated HER3.

Experimental design: qRT-PCR expression profiling was performed on >750 tumors of diverse origin, including >150 therapy-naïve, primary, and recurrent SCCHNs. Activated HER3, defined by immunoprecipitation of phospho-HER3, was compared to HRG expression in SCCHN samples. Paracrine versus autocrine expression was evaluated using RNA-in situ hybridization.

Results: SCCHN tumors express the highest levels of HRG compared to a diverse collection of other tumor types. We show that high HRG expression is associated with activated HER3, whereas low HRG expression is associated with low HER3 activation in SCCHN tumors. Furthermore, HRG expression is higher in recurrent SCCHN compared to patient-matched therapy naïve specimens.

Conclusions: HRG expression levels define a biologically distinct subset of SCCHN patients. We propose that high-level expression of HRG is associated with constitutive activation of HER3 in SCCHN and thus defines an actionable biomarker for interventions targeting HER3.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Gene Expression
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Neuregulin-1 / genetics
  • Neuregulin-1 / metabolism*
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / metabolism*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Neuregulin-1
  • Receptor, ErbB-3

Grant support

This study was funded by Genentech (www.gene.com). All authors are employees of Genentech and Genentech played a role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish and preparation of the manuscript.