Phenethyl isothiocyanate hampers growth and progression of HER2-positive breast and ovarian carcinoma by targeting their stem cell compartment

Ada Koschorke, Simona Faraci, Debora Giani, Claudia Chiodoni, Egidio Iorio, Rossella Canese, Mario P. Colombo, Alessia Lamolinara, Manuela Iezzi, Michael Ladomery, Claudio Vernieri, Filippo de Braud, Massimo Di Nicola, Elda Tagliabue, Lorenzo Castagnoli, Serenella M. Pupa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Isothiocyanates elicit anticancer effects by targeting cancer stem cells (CSCs). Here, we tested the antitumor activity of phenethyl-isothiocyanate (PEITC), either alone or in combination with trastuzumab, in HER2-positive tumor models. Methods: We assessed the in vitro anticancer activity of PEITC, alone or combined with trastuzumab, in HER2-positive BT474, SKBR3, HCC1954 and SKOV3 cancer cells by measuring their sphere forming efficiency (SFE). The expression of the human/rodent CSC biomarkers aldehyde-dehydrogenase (ALDH) and CD29High/CD24+/Sca1Low was evaluated by cytofluorimetric analysis. The expression of wild type HER2 (WTHER2), its splice variant d16HER2 and NOTCH was analysed by quantitative RT-PCR and Western blotting. The in vivo activity of PEITC and trastuzumab was evaluated in mice orthotopically implanted with MI6 tumor cells transgenic for the human d16HER2 splice isoform. Magnetic resonance imaging/spectroscopy and immunohistochemistry were used to assess morpho-functional and metabolic profiles of treated versus untreated mice. Results: We found that PEITC significantly impaired the SFE of HER2-positive human cancer cells by decreasing their ALDH-positive compartments. The anti-CSC activity of PEITC was demonstrated by a reduced expression/activation of established cancer-stemness biomarkers. Similar results were obtained with MI6 cells, where PEITC, alone or in combination with trastuzumab, significantly inhibited their SFE. We also found that PEITC hampered the in vivo growth of MI6 nodules by inducing hemorrhagic and necrotic intra-tumor areas and, in combination with trastuzumab, by significantly reducing spontaneous tumor development in d16HER2 transgenic mice. Conclusions: Our results indicate that PEITC targets HER2-positive CSCs and that its combination with trastuzumab may pave the way for a novel therapeutic strategy for HER2-positive tumors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)815-828
Number of pages14
JournalCellular Oncology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2019


  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer stem cells
  • d16HER2 isoform
  • HER2
  • Phenethyl isothiocyanate
  • Trastuzumab

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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