Seventy percent of breast cancers express the estrogen receptor (ER), and agents that target the ER are the mainstay of treatment. However, virtually all people with ER + breast cancer develop resistance to ER-directed agents in the metastatic setting. Beyond mutations in the ER itself, which occur in 25–30% of people treated with aromatase inhibitors 1 –4 , knowledge about clinical resistance mechanisms remains incomplete. We identified activating HER2 mutations in metastatic biopsies from eight patients with ER + metastatic breast cancer who had developed resistance to aromatase inhibitors, tamoxifen or fulvestrant. Examination of treatment-naive primary tumors in five patients showed no evidence of pre-existing mutations in four of five patients, suggesting that these mutations were acquired under the selective pressure of ER-directed therapy. The HER2 mutations and ER mutations were mutually exclusive, suggesting a distinct mechanism of acquired resistance to ER-directed therapies. In vitro analysis confirmed that the HER2 mutations conferred estrogen independence as well as—in contrast to ER mutations—resistance to tamoxifen, fulvestrant and the CDK4 and CDK6 inhibitor palbociclib. Resistance was overcome by combining ER-directed therapy with the irreversible HER2 kinase inhibitor neratinib.
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