The impact of tumor epithelial and microenvironmental heterogeneity on treatment responses in HER2+ breast cancer

JCI Insight. 2021 Jun 8;6(11):e147617. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.147617.


Despite the availability of multiple human epidermal growth factor receptor 2-targeted (HER2-targeted) treatments, therapeutic resistance in HER2+ breast cancer remains a clinical challenge. Intratumor heterogeneity for HER2 and resistance-conferring mutations in the PIK3CA gene (encoding PI3K catalytic subunit α) have been investigated in response and resistance to HER2-targeting agents, while the role of divergent cellular phenotypes and tumor epithelial-stromal cell interactions is less well understood. Here, we assessed the effect of intratumor cellular genetic heterogeneity for ERBB2 (encoding HER2) copy number and PIK3CA mutation on different types of neoadjuvant HER2-targeting therapies and clinical outcome in HER2+ breast cancer. We found that the frequency of cells lacking HER2 was a better predictor of response to HER2-targeted treatment than intratumor heterogeneity. We also compared the efficacy of different therapies in the same tumor using patient-derived xenograft models of heterogeneous HER2+ breast cancer and single-cell approaches. Stromal determinants were better predictors of response than tumor epithelial cells, and we identified alveolar epithelial and fibroblastic reticular cells as well as lymphatic vessel endothelial hyaluronan receptor 1-positive (Lyve1+) macrophages as putative drivers of therapeutic resistance. Our results demonstrate that both preexisting and acquired resistance to HER2-targeting agents involve multiple mechanisms including the tumor microenvironment. Furthermore, our data suggest that intratumor heterogeneity for HER2 should be incorporated into treatment design.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Molecular pathology; Oncology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological / therapeutic use*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / genetics*
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Transplantation
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics*
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism
  • Trastuzumab / therapeutic use
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins / metabolism


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Immunological
  • LYVE1 protein, human
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • PIK3CA protein, human
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • pertuzumab
  • Trastuzumab