Recurrent hyperactive ESR1 fusion proteins in endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer

Ann Oncol. 2018 Apr 1;29(4):872-880. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdy025.


Background: Estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) metastatic breast cancer is often intractable due to endocrine therapy resistance. Although ESR1 promoter switching events have been associated with endocrine-therapy resistance, recurrent ESR1 fusion proteins have yet to be identified in advanced breast cancer.

Patients and methods: To identify genomic structural rearrangements (REs) including gene fusions in acquired resistance, we undertook a multimodal sequencing effort in three breast cancer patient cohorts: (i) mate-pair and/or RNAseq in 6 patient-matched primary-metastatic tumors and 51 metastases, (ii) high coverage (>500×) comprehensive genomic profiling of 287-395 cancer-related genes across 9542 solid tumors (5216 from metastatic disease), and (iii) ultra-high coverage (>5000×) genomic profiling of 62 cancer-related genes in 254 ctDNA samples. In addition to traditional gene fusion detection methods (i.e. discordant reads, split reads), ESR1 REs were detected from targeted sequencing data by applying a novel algorithm (copyshift) that identifies major copy number shifts at rearrangement hotspots.

Results: We identify 88 ESR1 REs across 83 unique patients with direct confirmation of 9 ESR1 fusion proteins (including 2 via immunoblot). ESR1 REs are highly enriched in ER-positive, metastatic disease and co-occur with known ESR1 missense alterations, suggestive of polyclonal resistance. Importantly, all fusions result from a breakpoint in or near ESR1 intron 6 and therefore lack an intact ligand binding domain (LBD). In vitro characterization of three fusions reveals ligand-independence and hyperactivity dependent upon the 3' partner gene. Our lower-bound estimate of ESR1 fusions is at least 1% of metastatic solid breast cancers, the prevalence in ctDNA is at least 10× enriched. We postulate this enrichment may represent secondary resistance to more aggressive endocrine therapies applied to patients with ESR1 LBD missense alterations.

Conclusions: Collectively, these data indicate that N-terminal ESR1 fusions involving exons 6-7 are a recurrent driver of endocrine therapy resistance and are impervious to ER-targeted therapies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / therapeutic use*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / genetics
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / metabolism*
  • Female
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / genetics
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / metabolism*


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal
  • ESR1 protein, human
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins