HER2 in situ hybridization in breast cancer: Clinical implications of polysomy 17 and genetic heterogeneity

Wedad M. Hanna, Josef Rüschoff, Michael Bilous, Renata A. Coudry, Mitch Dowsett, Robert Y. Osamura, Frédérique Penault-Llorca, Marc Van De Vijver, Giuseppe Viale

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trastuzumab-containing therapy is a standard of care for patients with HER2+ breast cancer. HER2 status is routinely assigned using in situ hybridization to assess HER2 gene amplification, but interpretation of in situ hybridization results may be challenging in tumors with chromosome 17 polysomy or intratumoral genetic heterogeneity. Apparent chromosome 17 polysomy, defined by increased chromosome enumeration probe 17 (CEP17) signal number, is a common genetic aberration in breast cancer and represents an alternative mechanism for increasing HER2 copy number. Some studies have linked elevated CEP17 count ('polysomy') with adverse clinicopathologic features and HER2 overexpression, although there are numerous discrepancies in the literature. There is evidence that elevated CEP17 ('polysomy') count might account for trastuzumab response in tumors with normal HER2:CEP17 ratios. Nonetheless, recent studies establish that apparent 'polysomy' (CEP17 increase) is usually related to focal pericentromeric gains rather than true polysomy. Assigning HER2 status may also be complex where multiple cell subclones with distinct HER2 amplification characteristics coexist within the same tumor. Such genetic heterogeneity affects up to 40% of breast cancers when assessed according to a College of American Pathologists guideline, although other definitions have been proposed. Recent data have associated heterogeneity with unfavorable clinicopathologic variables and poor prognosis. Genetically heterogeneous tumors harboring HER2-amplified subclones have the potential to benefit from trastuzumab, but this has yet to be evaluated in clinical studies. In this review, we discuss the implications of apparent polysomy 17 and genetic heterogeneity for assigning HER2 status in clinical practice. Among our recommendations, we support the use of mean HER2 copy number rather than HER2:CEP17 ratio to define HER2 positivity in cases where coamplification of the centromere might mask HER2 amplification. We also highlight a need to harmonize in situ hybridization scoring methodology to support accurate HER2 status determination, particularly where there is evidence of heterogeneity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-18
Number of pages15
JournalModern Pathology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


  • breast cancer
  • chromosome 17
  • genetic heterogeneity
  • HER2 testing
  • in situ hybridization
  • polysomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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