Determination of HER2 phosphorylation at tyrosine 1221/1222 improves prediction of poor survival for breast cancer patients with hormone receptor-positive tumors

Thomas Frogne, Anne-Vibeke Laenkholm, Maria B Lyng, Katrine L├╝tken Henriksen, Anne E Lykkesfeldt
Breast Cancer Research: BCR 2009, 11 (1): R11

INTRODUCTION: High expression of total HER2 protein confers poor prognosis for breast cancer patients. HER2 is a member of the HER family consisting of four receptors, HER1 to HER4. HER receptor activity is regulated by a variety of mechanisms, and phosphorylation of the C-terminal part of the HER receptors is a marker for active signaling. The importance of phosphorylation and thereby activation of the HER1 to HER4 receptors, however, has not been investigated concomitantly in breast tumors. In the present study we examined the importance of active HER signaling in breast tumor biopsies and paired metastases, by evaluating the expression of phosphorylated HER1, HER2, HER3, Erk, Akt and the total level of HER4 and HER2.

METHODS: Immunohistochemical analysis was performed on 268 primary breast tumors and 30 paired metastatic lesions from postmenopausal women with hormone receptor-positive breast tumors, who had received adjuvant tamoxifen therapy. The observed protein expression levels were analyzed for co-expression, for correlation to clinicopathological parameters and for prognostic value in relation to disease-free survival and overall survival. Lastly, the difference between protein levels in primary tumors versus metastasis was evaluated.

RESULTS: In the primary tumors, 8%, 18%, 14% and 15% of cases were scored positive for total HER2, pHER1, pHER2 and pHER3 expression, respectively. HER4 was expressed with strong intensity in 68% and at moderate intensity in 29% of cases. The activated forms of Akt and Erk were quite uniformly expressed in the categories; negative, moderate or strong. In univariate analysis, expression of total HER2, pHER1, pHER2 and pHER3 was significantly associated with poor disease-free survival. Strong HER4 expression was associated with prolonged disease-free as well as with overall survival. Expression of pAkt and pErk was not correlated with survival. In multivariate analysis, pHER2 expression was clearly an independent marker for poor disease-free survival and overall survival when tested against tumor size, tumor grade, nodal status and HER2. Lastly, comparison of HER receptor expression in metastatic versus primary tumors showed a significant increase in expression of pHER1 and pHER3 in the metastases.

CONCLUSIONS: In hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, determination of pHER2 yields additional prognostic information about poor prognosis compared with the current clinical standard for measuring HER2.

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