Her2 signaling and breast cancer stem cells: The bridge behind her2-positive breast cancer aggressiveness and therapy refractoriness

Serenella M. Pupa, Francesca Ligorio, Valeria Cancila, Alma Franceschini, Claudio Tripodo, Claudio Vernieri, Lorenzo Castagnoli

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


HER2 overexpression/amplification occurs in 15–20% of breast cancers (BCs) and identifies a highly aggressive BC subtype. Recent clinical progress has increased the cure rates of limited-stage HER2-positive BC and significantly prolonged overall survival in patients with advanced disease; however, drug resistance and tumor recurrence remain major concerns. Therefore, there is an urgent need to increase knowledge regarding HER2 biology and implement available treatments. Cancer stem cells (CSCs) represent a subset of malignant cells capable of unlimited self-renewal and differentiation and are mainly considered to contribute to tumor onset, aggressiveness, metastasis, and treatment resistance. Seminal studies have highlighted the key role of altered HER2 signaling in the maintenance/enrichment of breast CSCs (BCSCs) and elucidated its bidirectional communication with stemness-related pathways, such as the Notch and Wingless/β-catenin cascades. d16HER2, a splice variant of full-length HER2 mRNA, has been identified as one of the most oncogenic HER2 isoform significantly implicated in tumorigenesis, epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT)/stemness and the response to targeted therapy. In addition, expression of a heterogeneous collection of HER2 truncated carboxy-terminal fragments (CTFs), collectively known as p95HER2, identifies a peculiar subgroup of HER2-positive BC with poor prognosis, with the p95HER2 variants being able to regulate CSC features. This review provides a comprehensive overview of the current evidence regarding HER2-/d16HER2-/p95HER2-positive BCSCs in the context of the signaling pathways governing their properties and describes the future prospects for targeting these components to achieve long-lasting tumor control.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4778
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - Oct 1 2021


  • Breast cancer
  • Cancer stem cells
  • D16HER2 splice variant
  • Drug resistance
  • Full-length HER2
  • P95HER2
  • Stemness signaling pathways

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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