Tumor-initiating cells of HER2-positive carcinoma cell lines express the highest oncoprotein levels and are sensitive to trastuzumab

Alessandra Magnifico, Luisa Albano, Stefano Campaner, Domenico Delia, Fabio Castiglioni, Patrizia Gasparini, Gabriella Sozzi, Enrico Fontanella, Sylvie Menard, Elda Tagliabue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: The existence of tumor-initiating cells in breast cancer has profound implications for cancer therapy. In this study, we investigated the sensitivity of tumor-initiating cells isolated from human epidermal growth factor receptor type 2 (HER2)-overexpressing carcinoma cell lines to trastuzumab, a compound used for the targeted therapy of breast cancer. Experimental Design: Spheres were analyzed by indirect immunofluorescence for HER2 cell surface expression and by real-time PCR for HER2 mRNA expression in the presence or absence of the Notch1 signaling inhibitor (GSI) or Notch1 small interfering RNA. Xenografts of HER2-overexpressing breast tumor cells were treated with trastuzumab or doxorubicin. The sphere-forming efficiency (SFE) and serial transplantability of tumors were assessed. Results: In HER2-overexpressing carcinoma cell lines, cells with tumor-initiating cell properties presented increased HER2 levels compared with the bulk cell population without modification in HER2 gene amplification. HER2 levels were controlled by Notch1 signaling, as shown by the reduction of HER2 cell surface expression and lower SFE following γ-secretase inhibition or Notch1 specific silencing. We also show that trastuzumab was able to effectively target tumor-initiating cells of HER2-positive carcinoma cell lines, as indicated by the significant decrease in SFE and the loss of serial transplantability, following treatment of HER2-overexpressing xenotransplants. Conclusions: Here, we provide evidence for the therapeutic efficacy of trastuzumab in debulking and in targeting tumor-initiating cells of HER2-overexpressing tumors. We also propose that Notch signaling regulates HER2 expression, thereby representing a critical survival pathway of tumor-initiating cells.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2010-2021
Number of pages12
JournalClinical Cancer Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Mar 15 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research
  • Oncology


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