A Targetable EGFR-Dependent Tumor-Initiating Program in Breast Cancer
Therapies targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) have variable and unpredictable responses in breast cancer. Screening triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) patient-derived xenografts (PDXs), we identify a subset responsive to EGFR inhibition by gefitinib, which displays heterogeneous expression of wild-type EGFR. Deep single-cell RNA sequencing of 3,500 cells from an exceptional responder identified subpopulations displaying distinct biological features, where elevated EGFR expression was significantly enriched in a mesenchymal/stem-like cellular cluster. Sorted EGFRhi subpopulations exhibited enhanced stem-like features, including ALDH activity, sphere-forming efficiency, and tumorigenic and metastatic potential. EGFRhi cells gave rise to EGFRhi and EGFRlo cells in primary and metastatic tumors, demonstrating an EGFR-dependent expansion and hierarchical state transition. Similar tumorigenic EGFRhi subpopulations were identified in independent PDXs, where heterogeneous EGFR expression correlated with gefitinib sensitivity. This provides new understanding for an EGFR-dependent hierarchy in TNBC and for patient stratification for therapeutic intervention.