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PLoS One. 2013 Aug 26;8(8):e71987. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071987. eCollection 2013.

Spontaneous epithelial-mesenchymal transition and resistance to HER-2-targeted therapies in HER-2-positive luminal breast cancer.

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Department of Experimental Oncology, Cross Cancer Institute and University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Resistance to trastuzumab, a rationally designed HER-2-targeting antibody, remains a major hurdle in the management of HER-2-positive breast cancer. Preclinical studies suggest the mechanisms of trastuzumab resistance are numerous. Unfortunately, the majority of these studies are based around HER-2-positive (HER-2+) luminal cell lines. The role of epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), a genetic program that confers a basal phenotype, may represent a novel mechanism of escape for HER-2+ luminal cells from trastuzumab treatment. Here we investigated this possibility using a model of clonal selection in HER-2+ luminal breast cancer cells. Following a random isolation and expansion of "colony clusters" from SKBR-3 cell lines, several colony clusters underwent a spontaneous EMT in-vitro. In addition to expression of conventional EMT markers, all mesenchymal colony clusters displayed a predominant CD44+/CD24- phenotype with decreased HER-2 expression and elevated levels of a β1-integrin isoform with a high degree of N-glycosylation. Treatment with a β1-integrin function-blocking antibody, AIIB2, preferentially decreased the N-glycosylated form of β1-integrin, impaired mammosphere formation and restored epithelial phenotype in mesenchymal colony clusters. Using this model we provide the first clear evidence that resistance to trastuzumab (and lapatinib) can occur spontaneously as HER-2+ cells shift from a luminal to a basal/mesenchymal phenotype following EMT. While the major determinant of trastuzumab resistance in mesenchymal colony clusters is likely the down regulation of the HER-2 protein, our evidence suggests that multiple factors may contribute, including expression of N-glycosylated β1-integrin.

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