HER2 expression, copy number variation and survival outcomes in HER2-low non-metastatic breast cancer: an international multicentre cohort study and TCGA-METABRIC analysis

BMC Med. 2022 Mar 17;20(1):105. doi: 10.1186/s12916-022-02284-6.


Background: HER2-low breast cancer (BC) is currently an area of active interest. This study evaluated the impact of low expression of HER2 on survival outcomes in HER2-negative non-metastatic breast cancer (BC).

Methods: Patients with HER2-negative non-metastatic BC from 6 centres within the Asian Breast Cancer Cooperative Group (ABCCG) (n = 28,280) were analysed. HER2-low was defined as immunohistochemistry (IHC) 1+ or 2+ and in situ hybridization non-amplified (ISH-) and HER2-zero as IHC 0. Relapse-free survival (RFS) and overall survival (OS) by hormone receptor status and HER2 IHC 0, 1+ and 2+ ISH- status were the main outcomes. A combined TCGA-BRCA and METABRIC cohort (n = 1967) was also analysed to explore the association between HER2 expression, ERBB2 copy number variation (CNV) status and RFS.

Results: ABCCG cohort median follow-up was 6.6 years; there were 12,260 (43.4%) HER2-low BC and 16,020 (56.6%) HER2-zero BC. The outcomes were better in HER2-low BC than in HER2-zero BC (RFS: centre-adjusted hazard ratio (HR) 0.88, 95% CI 0.82-0.93, P < 0.001; OS: centre-adjusted HR 0.82, 95% CI 0.76-0.89, P < 0.001). On multivariable analysis, HER2-low status was prognostic (RFS: HR 0.90, 95% CI 0.85-0.96, P = 0.002; OS: HR 0.86, 95% CI 0.79-0.93, P < 0.001). These differences remained significant in hormone receptor-positive tumours and for OS in hormone receptor-negative tumours. Superior outcomes were observed for HER2 IHC1+ BC versus HER2-zero BC (RFS: HR 0.89, 95% CI 0.83-0.96, P = 0.001; OS: HR 0.85, 95% CI 0.78-0.93, P = 0.001). No significant differences were seen between HER2 IHC2+ ISH- and HER2-zero BCs. In the TCGA-BRCA and METABRIC cohorts, ERBB2 CNV status was an independent RFS prognostic factor (neutral versus non-neutral HR 0.71, 95% CI 0.59-0.86, P < 0.001); no differences in RFS by ERBB2 mRNA expression levels were found.

Conclusions: HER2-low BC had a superior prognosis compared to HER2-zero BC in the non-metastatic setting, though absolute differences were modest and driven by HER2 IHC 1+ BC. ERBB2 CNV merits further investigation in HER2-negative BC.

Keywords: ERBB2 neutral; HER2-low breast cancer; METABRIC; Prognosis; TCGA.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • DNA Copy Number Variations* / genetics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local
  • Prognosis