Introduction: Many Luminal breast cancers are heterogeneous, containing substantial numbers of estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR) receptor-negative cells among the ER+ PR+ ones. One such subpopulation we call "Luminobasal" is ER-, PR- and cytokeratin 5 (CK5)-positive. It is not targeted for treatment.
Methods: To address the relationships between ER+PR+CK5- and ER-PR-CK5+ cells in Luminal cancers and tightly control their ratios we generated isogenic pure Luminal (pLUM) and pure Luminobasal (pLB) cells from the same parental Luminal human breast cancer cell line. We used high-throughput screening to identify pLB-specific drugs and examined their efficacy alone and in combination with hormone therapy in mixed-cell tumor models.
Results: We show that pLUM and MCF7 cells suppress proliferation of pLB cells in mixed-cell 3D colonies in vitro and that pLUM cells suppress growth of pLB cells in mixed-cell xenografts in vivo. High-throughput screening of 89 FDA-approved oncology drugs shows that pLB cells are sensitive to monotherapy with the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors gefitinib and erlotinib. By exploiting mixed-cell 3D colonies and mixed-cell solid mouse tumors models we demonstrate that combination therapy with gefitinib plus the anti-estrogen fulvestrant constitutes a robust treatment strategy.
Conclusions: We propose that response to combination endocrine/EGFR inhibitor therapies in heterogeneous Luminal cancers may improve long-term survival in patients whose primary tumors have been preselected for appropriate biomarkers, including ER, PR, CK5 and EGFR.