Breast Cancer Research and Treatment

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 115–132 | Cite as

Heterodimerization and functional interaction between EGF receptor family members: a new signaling paradigm with implications for breast cancer research

  • H. Shelton Earp
  • Thomas L. Dawson
  • Xiong Li
  • Hong Yu


The EGF receptor (EGFR) and HER2 are members of a growth factor receptor family. Overexpression of either protein in advanced breast cancer correlates with poor prognosis. EGF stimulates growth by binding to EGFR, activating the receptor's intracellular tyrosine kinase. The initial consequence is phosphorylation of specific tyrosine-containing sequences in the receptor's carboxyl terminus. These phosphotyrosines serve as high affinity recognition sites for proteins that, in turn, transmit the growth signal inside the cell. Mechanistic studies suggest that EGF binds to a single EGFR, triggering dimerization with another like receptor molecule. This dimerization is thought to initiate the tyrosine kinase activation.

The EGF receptor family was recently expanded with the sequencing of HER3 and HER4. Each of the four family members was postulated to regulate a unique growth or differentiation signaling repertoire when activated by a receptor-specific ligand. However, new data from numerous laboratories suggest that EGFR family members may play a complex and ultimately more flexible role in signaling by forming heterodimers between family members, e.g. EGFR:HER2 or HER4:HER2. These heterodimers may form even when only one member of the pair binds its ligand.

This review summarizes current work on heterodimerization and attempts to predict the consequences for downstream signaling. In brief, when compared to ligand-dependent receptor homodimers comprised of two proteins with the same internalization sequence and phosphorylated tyrosine residues, heterodimers are likely to: i) expand substrate selection and downstream signaling pathway activation; ii) promote interaction between sets of substrates in the mixed receptor complexes that would not ordinarily be physically juxtaposed; iii) alter the duration of receptor signaling by changing rates of receptor internalization, ligand loss, kinase inactivation, recycling, etc.; and iv) alter rates of receptor and substrate dephosphorylation. In addition to understanding interactions of heterodimers with the internalization machinery, identification of receptor-specific substrates and binding proteins for each EGFR family member will be necessary to explicate the role of heterodimers in growth and differentiation.

Key words

EGF receptor HER2 HER3 HER4 heterodimerization tyrosine phosphorylation 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • H. Shelton Earp
    • 1
  • Thomas L. Dawson
    • 1
  • Xiong Li
    • 1
  • Hong Yu
    • 1
  1. 1.Departments of Medicine and PharmacologyUniversity of North Carolina, and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer CenterUSA

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