The interplay between estrogen receptor (ER) and erbB tyrosine-kinase receptors (RTK) impacts growth and progression of ER-positive (ER+)/HER2-positive (HER2+) breast cancer and generates mitogenic signals converging onto the Cyclin-D1/CDK4/6 complex. We probed this cross-talk combining endocrine-therapy (fulvestrant), dual HER2-blockade (trastuzumab and pertuzumab), and CDK4/6-inhibition (palbociclib; PFHPert).
Cytotoxic drug effects, interactions, and pharmacodynamics were studied after 72 hours of treatment and over 6 more days of culture after drug wash-out in three ER+/HER2+, two HER2low, and two ER-negative (ER−)/HER2+ breast cancer cell lines. We assessed gene-expression dynamic and association with Ki67 downregulation in 28 patients with ER+/HER2+ breast cancer treated with neoadjuvant PFHPert in NA-PHER2 trial (NCT02530424).
In vitro, palbociclib and/or fulvestrant induced a functional activation of RTKs signalling. PFHPert had additive or synergistic antiproliferative activity, interfered with resistance mechanisms linked to the RTKs/Akt/MTORC1 axis and induced sustained senescence. Unexpected synergism was found in HER2low cells. In patients, Ki67 downregulation at week 2 and surgery were significantly associated to upregulation of senescence-related genes (P = 7.7E-4 and P = 1.8E-4, respectively). Activation of MTORC1 pathway was associated with high Ki67 at surgery (P = 0.019).
Resistance associated with the combination of drugs targeting ER and HER2 can be bypassed by cotargeting Rb, enhancing transition from quiescence to sustained senescence. MTORC1 pathway activation is a potential mechanism of escape and RTKs functional activation may be an alternative pathway for survival also in ER+/HER2low tumor. PFHPert combination is an effective chemotherapy-free regimen for ER+/HER2+ breast cancer, and the mechanistic elucidation of sensitivity/resistance patterns may provide insights for further treatment refinement.