Intratumor heterogeneity is postulated to cause therapeutic resistance. To prospectively assess the impact of HER2 (ERBB2) heterogeneity on response to HER2-targeted therapy, we treated 164 patients with centrally confirmed HER2-positive early-stage breast cancer with neoadjuvant trastuzumab emtansine plus pertuzumab. HER2 heterogeneity was assessed on pretreatment biopsies from two locations of each tumor. HER2 heterogeneity, defined as an area with ERBB2 amplification in >5% but <50% of tumor cells, or a HER2-negative area by FISH, was detected in 10% (16/157) of evaluable cases. The pathologic complete response rate was 55% in the nonheterogeneous subgroup and 0% in the heterogeneous group (P < 0.0001, adjusted for hormone receptor status). Single-cell ERBB2 FISH analysis of cellular heterogeneity identified the fraction of ERBB2 nonamplified cells as a driver of therapeutic resistance. These data suggest HER2 heterogeneity is associated with resistance to HER2-targeted therapy and should be considered in efforts to optimize treatment strategies.


HER2-targeted therapies improve cure rates in HER2-positive breast cancer, suggesting chemotherapy can be avoided in a subset of patients. We show that HER2 heterogeneity, particularly the fraction of ERBB2 nonamplified cancer cells, is a strong predictor of resistance to HER2 therapies and could potentially be used to optimize treatment selection.

See related commentary by Okines and Turner, p. 2369.

This article is highlighted in the In This Issue feature, p. 2355

You do not currently have access to this content.