Nicole Vincent Jordan, Aditya Bardia, Ben S. Wittner, Cyril Benes, Matteo Ligorio, Yu Zheng, Min Yu, Tilak K. Sundaresan, Joseph A. Licausi, Rushil Desai, Ryan M. O’Keefe, Richard Y. Ebright, Myriam Boukhali, Srinjoy Sil, Maristela L. Onozato, Anthony J. Iafrate, Ravi Kapur, Dennis Sgroi, David T. Ting, Mehmet Toner, Sridhar Ramaswamy, Wilhelm Haas, Shyamala Maheswaran & Daniel A. Haber
Circulating tumour cells in women with advanced oestrogen-receptor (ER)-positive/human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-negative breast cancer acquire a HER2-positive subpopulation after multiple courses of therapy1, 2. In contrast to HER2-amplified primary breast cancer, which is highly sensitive to HER2-targeted therapy, the clinical significance of acquired HER2 heterogeneity during the evolution of metastatic breast cancer is unknown. Here we analyse circulating tumour cells from 19 women with ER+/HER2− primary tumours, 84% of whom had acquired circulating tumour cells expressing HER2. Cultured circulating tumour cells maintain discrete HER2+ and HER2− subpopulations: HER2+ circulating tumour cells are more proliferative but not addicted to HER2, consistent with activation of multiple signalling pathways; HER2− circulating tumour cells show activation of Notch and DNA damage pathways, exhibiting resistance to cytotoxic chemotherapy, but sensitivity to Notch inhibition. HER2+ and HER2− circulating tumour cells interconvert spontaneously, with cells of one phenotype producing daughters of the opposite within four cell doublings. Although HER2+ and HER2− circulating tumour cells have comparable tumour initiating potential, differential proliferation favours the HER2+ state, while oxidative stress or cytotoxic chemotherapy enhances transition to the HER2− phenotype. Simultaneous treatment with paclitaxel and Notch inhibitors achieves sustained suppression of tumorigenesis in orthotopic circulating tumour cell-derived tumour models. Together, these results point to distinct yet interconverting phenotypes within patient-derived circulating tumour cells, contributing to progression of breast cancer and acquisition of drug resistance.