, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 57-66

The significance ofheregulin in breast cancer tumor progression and drug resistance

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TheerbB-2 receptor plays an important role in the prognosis of breast cancer and is expressed at high levels in nearly 30% of tumors in breast cancer patients. While evidence accumulates to support the relationship betweenerbB-2 overexpression and poor overall survival in human breast cancer, understanding of the biological consequence(s) oferbB-2 overexpression remains elusive. The discovery ofheregulin has allowed us to identify a number of related but distinct biological endpoints which appear responsive to signal transduction through theerbB-2/4 receptor. These endpoints of growth, invasiveness, and differentiation have clear implications for the emergence, maintenance, and/or control of malignancy, and represent established endpoints in the assessment of malignant progression in human breast cancer. Preliminary studiesin vitro have shown thatheregulin induces a biphasic growth effect on cells witherbB-2 overexpression. Interestingly, we observed that expression ofheregulin correlates with a more aggressive/invasive, vimentin-positive phenotype in breast cancer cells lines. Therefore, we have postulated thatheregulin is involved in breast cancer tumor progression. We have shown thatheregulin inducesin vitro chemoinvasion and chemotaxis of breast cancer cells as well as growth in an anchorage dependent and independent manner. Interestingly, aheregulin neutralizing antibody inhibits chemotaxis and results in cell growth inhibition and blockade of the invasive phenotype. Strikingly, genetically engineered cells which constitutively expressheregulin demonstrate critical phenotypic changes that are associated with a more aggressive phenotype. Specifically, these cells are no longer dependent on estrogen for growth and are resistant to tamoxifenin vitro andin vivo, and moreover these cells metastasize to lymph nodes in athymic nude mice. These tumors appear to have lostbcl-2 expression as compared with the control tumors. In addition, presumably by activation/regulation of topoisomerase II, theheregulin-transfected cells become exquisitely sensitive to doxorubicin and VP-16. Clearly, mechanistic aspects of theerbB-2/4 andheregulin interaction need to be understood from a therapeutic standpoint which could provide additional insights into synergistic treatments for certain patients, or improve treatment regimens for a large number of women. The study ofheregulin and its co-expression witherbB-2/4 receptor and the assessment of its involvement in the progression from the in situ stage of breast tumors to the invasive one will additionally increase the relevance ofheregulin as a prognostic/diagnostic factor. We believe that our studies provide new insights into breast cancer diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.

Presented at the symposium "New Approaches in the Therapy of Breast Cancer", Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington DC, October 1994, generously supported by an education grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb.