For their invention of Herceptin, the first monoclonal antibody that blocks a cancer-causing protein, and for its development as a life-saving therapy for women with breast cancer
The 2019 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award honors three scientists—H. Michael Shepard, Dennis J. Slamon, and Axel Ullrich —who invented Herceptin, the first monoclonal antibody that blocks a cancer-causing protein, and developed it into a life-saving therapy for women with breast cancer. The innovation reduces the risk of recurrence and extends survival time for patients with metastatic as well as early-stage disease. Every year, more than 50,000 women in the US are diagnosed with the type of breast cancer that the drug attacks, and over 2.3 million individuals have received the treatment since it became available. Shepard (now at BetterOutcomes4Cancer) and Ullrich (now at Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Martinsried, Germany) conducted their Herceptin investigations at Genentech. Slamon did his at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he continues to work.
In the mid 1970s, scientists discovered that genes within our own bodies can trigger cancer. This revelation sparked the idea that stifling the activities of such oncogenes might thwart the trouble they instigate. This approach—in which a therapy would fixate on molecules that dwell specifically in cancer cells and also drive malignancy—held great appeal. Such a targeted strategy might avoid many of the harsh side effects associated with chemotherapy while striking the source of the affliction.
Prominent among known oncogenes were several that encode overzealous versions of growth factors and the receptors that sense them. The receptors, which lie across the cell membrane, receive signals from the external environment and then relay them inside to spur proliferation. Ullrich was particularly interested in a subgroup of these proteins—the tyrosine kinase receptors—and he wanted to uncover previously unknown members of this molecular family in humans.
In 1985, Ullrich, Arthur Levinson (also at Genentech), and colleagues found a gene whose sequence resembles that of the human epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR or HER1) and the chicken oncogene v-erbB. They named it HER2—human EGF receptor 2—because of this similarity. Its sequence and location on the chromosome suggested that it might be the human version of neu, a rat oncogene discovered the year before by Robert Weinberg (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Independently and simultaneously, two other groups, led by Stuart Aaronson (National Cancer Institute) and Tadashi Yamamoto (University of Tokyo), identified HER2 and showed that it was amplified in malignancies from a human breast and a salivary gland.
In the meantime, UCLA oncologist Slamon and, independently, the late William McGuire (University of Texas Medical Center, San Antonio), had been collecting cancer tissues that had been surgically removed for therapeutic reasons and checking whether established oncogenes were firing excessively in them. Ullrich, with his tantalizing gene, and Slamon, with his human tumor library, connected. In 1987, they reported that almost 30% of 189 breast cancer samples contained more than one copy of the HER2 gene. Analysis of health records for many of the patients represented in the study revealed that women whose tumors carried multiple copies of the gene relapsed more quickly and died sooner than did those whose tumors contained only one copy. Furthermore, the gene amplification better predicted prognosis than did most standard indicators, such as tumor size and hormone receptor status.
These associations were provocative, but numerous previously described proteins appeared on cancer cells yet did not propel tumor formation or progression. To gain candidacy as a therapeutic target, HER2 overabundance would have to cause, not just correlate with, malignancy.
To investigate this issue, Ullrich and postdoctoral fellow Robert Hudziak engineered mouse connective-tissue cells grown in laboratory culture dishes to produce extra HER2 protein. The supplemental HER2 caused the cells to keep dividing under conditions in which they’d usually stop, a sign of transformation to a cancerous state. The HER2-augmented cells also displayed other evidence of malignancy, and they formed tumors after injection into mice. Because the only difference between the corrupt and well-mannered cells was the amount of HER2, these results indicated that surplus growth factor receptor unbridles normal restraints on replication.
Simultaneously and in parallel, Shepard, in his own lab at Genentech, had landed on HER2 from a different direction. He was probing the mechanisms by which cancer cells evade destruction by a chemical called Tumor Necrosis Factor-α (TNF-α), a component of the body’s immune response. He had found that activation of some tyrosine kinases can curb TNF-α’s lethal potency. Together, he and Ullrich showed that HER2 renders mouse cells resistant to TNF-α’s toxic effects. Perhaps, they reasoned, HER2 promotes aggressive cancers not only by causing growth to run amok, but also by toughening up the cells and endowing them with ways to withstand assaults that normally would kill them.
If excessive quantities of HER2 cause runaway growth and protection from the body’s defense system, quashing receptor function might reverse these aberrant behaviors. The part of the protein that resides outside the cell was especially alluring because it was likely to be accessible to a drug. To block HER2 stimulation, the researchers wanted to develop a compound that would bind to this exposed portion and impede incoming signals. They sought monoclonal antibodies to serve that purpose.
The Genentech scientists made a collection of monoclonal antibodies in mice and zeroed in on one that inhibited growth of several breast cancer cell lines. Crucially, it had this effect only on cell lines that overproduce HER2 protein. Furthermore, it sensitized these tumor cells to killing by TNF-α. The top pick antibody, dubbed 4D5, did not bind to HER2’s relative, the human EGF receptor—an important characteristic, as a successful drug must not interfere with activities of healthy cells. These observations suggested that a 4D5-based treatment would foil only HER2-overexpressing cells.
Even if 4D5 could, in principle, crush tumor growth in people’s bodies, a significant hurdle remained. Because it came from mice, the human immune system would deem it “foreign” and destroy it. To design an antibody that would not stir such an inflammatory reaction, Paul Carter, working with Shepard, aimed to retain the bare minimum of 4D5—only the part that binds HER2—and replace the rest with human antibody sequences. In 1992, the team reported that one of these “humanized” antibodies bound HER2 three times more tightly than 4D5 and blocked proliferation of a HER2-overexpressing breast cancer cell line as efficiently.
Despite these auspicious results, hesitation lurked among Genentech’s decision makers. The company had pursued other potential cancer drugs that had not panned out. Furthermore, many experts were skeptical that monoclonal antibodies would prove therapeutically useful against cancer, especially for solid rather than blood malignancies—in part because scientists doubted that these agents would penetrate the tumors. To bolster the case for clinical pursuit, Shepard and Slamon performed numerous studies. They showed, for instance, that radioactive-tagged mouse antibody—a single dose, so it would not elicit a strong immune response—accumulated in tumors, but only in those of women with cancers that overproduced HER2. This encouraging observation energized the team, as did the patients’ willingness to participate even though they would not benefit and might suffer unknown consequences. Such generosity repeated itself at numerous steps of the enterprise.
During this period, the investigators also collected data that would help guide clinical deployment of the potential drug. Using human breast cancer cells grown in the lab, Slamon and colleagues explored how best to combine the antibody with standard chemotherapy regimens. Genentech scientists and Slamon also developed diagnostic tests to identify women with HER2-overexpressing (HER2+) breast cancers.
The company decided to move forward, and clinical trials began on women with metastatic HER2+ breast cancer. By 1998, the data were strong enough that the humanized monoclonal antibody—now called trastuzumab (brand name, Herceptin)—gained approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In 2001, Slamon and colleagues published those results. A large, randomized study on women with progressive, HER2+ breast cancer revealed that the addition of Herceptin to chemotherapy stalled disease progression, reduced the one-year death rate from 33 percent to 22 percent, and extended overall survival. Subsequent trials on early-stage, HER2+ breast cancer showed that Herceptin also improves outcomes in that setting, for which it was FDA-approved in 2006 (see Figure).
Herceptin is now a standard therapy for HER2+ breast cancers. Researchers have continued to investigate HER2, and additional antibodies that target it have reached the market. For instance, a drug called pertuzumab differs from Herceptin in the region of HER2 that it binds and its mechanism of action. A 2015 review reported that overall survival of women with metastatic HER2+ disease who received chemotherapy plus pertuzumab and Herceptin was more than 4.5 years. In 2001, life expectancy for women with that diagnosis was 1.5 years.
The impact of Herceptin’s development reaches beyond breast cancer by establishing that monoclonal antibodies can indeed combat solid tumors. Furthermore, the innovation offers a new model for personalized medicine by deploying a diagnostic test that identifies the most appropriate patients to treat with a particular intervention. By uncovering and exploiting the molecular pathology of a devastating disease, Shepard, Slamon, and Ullrich conceived and executed a new blueprint for drug discovery that has already bestowed tens of thousands of women with time and quality of life.
by Evelyn Strauss
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How the color theories of a chemist have ricocheted across centuries of artistic and scientific imagination.Read the Keynote by Lasker Jury Chair Joseph L. Goldstein
Please visit this page on Monday, September 23, to read an overview of the Clinical Research Award by Michael Brown.
Please visit this page on Monday, September 23, to read remarks by Michael Shepard.
Please visit this page on Monday, September 23, to read remarks by Dennis Slamon.
Please visit this page on Monday, September 23, to read remarks by Axel Ullrich.
Seated, left to right James Rothman, Yale University ● Xiaowei Zhuang, Harvard University ● Joseph Goldstein, Chair of the Jury, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University ● J. Michael Bishop, University of California, San Francisco ● Erin O’Shea, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Standing, left to right Richard Locksley, University of California, San Francisco ● Jeremy Nathans, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine ● Michael Brown, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● K. Christopher Garcia, Stanford University ● Christopher Walsh, Harvard University ● Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford University ● Robert Lefkowitz, Duke University School of Medicine ● Craig Thompson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Richard Lifton, Rockefeller University ● Harold Varmus, Weill Cornell Medical College ● Laurie Glimcher, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute ● Jeffrey Friedman, Rockefeller University ● Charles Sawyers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center