Research Perspectives:

Cancer stem cell-driven efficacy of trastuzumab (Herceptin): towards a reclassification of clinically HER2-positive breast carcinomas

Begoña Martin-Castillo, Eugeni Lopez-Bonet, Elisabet Cuyàs, Gemma Viñas, Sonia Pernas, Joan Dorca and Javier A. Menendez _

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Oncotarget. 2015; 6:32317-32338. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.6094

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Begoña Martin-Castillo1,2,3, Eugeni Lopez-Bonet4, Elisabet Cuyàs2,5, Gemma Viñas2,6, Sonia Pernas7, Joan Dorca2,6 and Javier A. Menendez2,5

1 Unit of Clinical Research, Catalan Institute of Oncology, Girona, Catalonia, Spain

2 Molecular Oncology Group, Girona Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBGI), Girona, Catalonia, Spain

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology II, Faculty of Pharmacy, Complutense University, Madrid, Spain

4 Department of Anatomical Pathology, Dr. Josep Trueta Hospital of Girona, Girona, Catalonia, Spain

5 ProCURE (Program Against Cancer Therapeutic Resistance), Metabolism and Cancer Group, Catalan Institute of Oncology, Girona, Catalonia, Spain

6 Department of Medical Oncology, Catalan Institute of Oncology, Girona, Catalonia, Spain

7 Department of Medical Oncology, Breast Unit, Catalan Institute of Oncology-Hospital Universitari de Bellvitge-Bellvitge Research Institute (IDIBELL), L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Correspondence to:

Javier A. Menendez, email:

Keywords: HER2, cancer stem cells, basal-like, cytokeratins, trastuzumab

Received: August 01, 2015 Accepted: September 24, 2015 Published: October 12, 2015


Clinically HER2+ (cHER2+) breast cancer (BC) can no longer be considered a single BC disease entity in terms of trastuzumab responsiveness. Here we propose a framework for predicting the response of cHER2+ to trastuzumab that integrates the molecular distinctions of intrinsic BC subtypes with recent knowledge on cancer stem cell (CSC) biology. First, we consider that two interchangeable populations of epithelial-like, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH)-expressing and mesenchymal-like, CD44+CD24-/low CSCs can be found in significantly different proportions across all intrinsic BC subtypes. Second, we overlap all the intrinsic subtypes across cHER2+ BC to obtain a continuum of mixed phenotypes in which one extreme exhibits a high identity with ALDH+ CSCs and the other extreme exhibits a high preponderance of CD44+CD24-/low CSCs. The differential enrichment of trastuzumab-responsive ALDH+ CSCs versus trastuzumab-refractory CD44+CD24-/low CSCs can explain both the clinical behavior and the primary efficacy of trastuzumab in each molecular subtype of cHER2+ (i.e., HER2-enriched/cHER2+, luminal A/cHER2+, luminal B/cHER2+, basal/cHER2+, and claudin-low/cHER2+). The intrinsic plasticity determining the epigenetic ability of cHER2+ tumors to switch between epithelial and mesenchymal CSC states will vary across the continuum of mixed phenotypes, thus dictating their intratumoral heterogeneity and, hence, their evolutionary response to trastuzumab. Because CD44+CD24-/low mesenchymal-like CSCs distinctively possess a highly endocytic activity, the otherwise irrelevant HER2 can open the door to a type of “Trojan horse” approach by employing antibody-drug conjugates such as T-DM1, which will allow a rapid and CSC-targeted delivery of cytotoxic drugs to therapeutically manage trastuzumab-unresponsive basal/cHER2+ BC. Contrary to the current dichotomous model used clinically, our model proposes that a reclassification of cHER2+ tumors based on the spectrum of molecular BC subtypes might inform on their CSC-determined sensitivity to trastuzumab, thus providing a better delineation of the predictive value of cHER2+ in BC by incorporating CSCs-driven intra-tumor heterogeneity into clinical decisions.

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