The human EGF receptor family (HER's) consists of two clinically validated drug targets (EGFR and HER2), a third (HER3) currently under investigation for its possible role in the acquisition of multidrug resistance and a fourth (HER4), the role of which is still matter of debate. Drugs inhibiting EGFR or HER2 show significant antitumor activity in the clinic, however, acquisition of resistance is a hallmark of these and most targeted therapies. In the case of EGFR and HER2, one of the emerging resistance mechanisms is the co-expression of HER3. Indeed, recent reports show that inhibition of the PI3K pathway leads to upregulation of HER3, and subsequent resistance. Clinical analysis of protein levels in formalin fixed paraffin embedded (FFPE) tissues is limited to immunohistochemistry (IHC), which is semi-quantitative and requires significant amounts of tissue. Moreover, the vast majority of research groups consider specific HER3 staining by IHC particularly challenging. However, accurate measurement of these targets is critical both for properly defining treatment groups and predicting patterns of resistance.

In order to address these issues, we used trypsin digestion mapping and stable isotope labeled peptides to develop a panel of quantitative mass spectrometric (MS) assays to measure the levels of EGFR, HER2, HER3 and other clinically relevant targets in FFPE breast cancer tissue. These quantitative MS assays were then multiplexed to analyze 1μg of tumor protein.

In this study, we multiplexed HER family analysis on 31 HER2 positive breast cancers. Tumor tissue was microdissected from FFPE sections, and subjected to quantitative MS analysis of EGFR, HER2, HER3 as well as IGF1R and cMET. Quantitation of HER2 showed a broad range of HER2 expression in these tissues. The highest expresser measured 26 fmol/ug tumor tissue, representing amplification and massive protein over expression. In contrast, five tissues showed low levels of HER2 expression, below 1 fmol/ug, similar to HER2 non-amplified cell lines. This suggests that MS quantitation can identify patients with low expression of HER2 who are unlikely to respond to trastuzumab therapy. As a matter of fact, 3 of these 5 low expressing patients had outcome data and showed no response to trastuzumab treatment.

In 28 of 31 patient tissue samples, HER3 showed low levels of expression (100–300 amol/ug tumor tissue) similar to HER3 expression in cell lines, and comparable to low expressing EGFR and HER2 cell lines. The remaining 3 patients had no detectable HER3. This study demonstrates the feasibility of measuring HER3 in multiplex in FFPE breast cancer tissue. Based on the low but widespread expression of HER3 in this cohort, it may be most useful to assess HER3 expression after initial treatment as a marker of potential resistance to targeted therapies.

Taken together, these data demonstrate that a sensitive and quantitative assay to measure oncoproteins in FFPE clinical samples may help stratify patients with variable expression of these targets. Our quantitation of oncogene expression from clinical samples uses a small amount of tissue, is clinically applicable and alleviates the problem of scoring either positive or negative for the expression of a given protein.

Citation Information: Cancer Res 2012;72(24 Suppl):Abstract nr P1-07-19.