Oncogene (2003) 22, 6570–6578. doi:10.1038/sj.onc.1206779

Biologic and therapeutic role of HER2 in cancer

Sylvie Ménard1, Serenella Marja Pupa1, Manuela Campiglio1 and Elda Tagliabue1

1Molecular Targeting Unit, Department of Experimental Oncology, Istituto Nazionale Tumori, 20133 Milan, Italy

Correspondence: S Ménard, E-mail:



Overexpression of the human epidermal growth factor-2 (HER2) oncogene in human breast carcinomas has been associated with a more aggressive course of disease. The reason for this association is still unclear, although it has been suggested to rest in increased proliferation, vessel formation, and/or invasiveness. Alternatively, prognosis may not be directly related to the presence of the oncoprotein on the cell membrane, but instead to the breast carcinoma subset identified by HER2 overexpression and characterized by a peculiar gene expression profile. HER2 has also been associated with sensitivity to anthracyclins and resistance to endocrine therapy, suggesting that tyrosine kinase receptor and hormone receptor pathways represent two major proliferation pathways exclusively active in breast carcinomas, one sensitive to chemotherapeutic drugs and the other to antiestrogens. HER2 currently represents one of the most appropriate targets for specific therapy. Indeed, trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody directed against the extracellular domain of HER2, is therapeutically active in HER2-positive breast carcinomas. However, a consistent number of HER2-positive tumors is not responsive to HER2-driven therapy, indicating the need for a better understanding of the mechanism of action of this new biological drug in vivo. While preclinical studies suggest antibody-dependent cell cytotoxicity as the major mechanism, determination of NK activity at the time of treatment remains mandatory, especially in patients treated with immunosuppressive drugs. The efficacy of prophylactic vaccination has been fully demonstrated in preclinical models, whereas ongoing studies of active immunotherapy using a variety of vaccination regimens against HER2 in tumor-bearing mice and patients have met with only moderate success.


HER2, biological role, prognostic value, predictive value, therapy