Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), erbB2, erbB3 and erbB4 are four transmembrane glycoproteins belonging to the subtype I tyrosine kinases. They share structure homologies and are believed to direct cellular growth through the ligand-stimulated tyrosine phosphorylation of intracellular substrate. The overexpression of these tyrosine kinases has been linked to various cancers. To examine the role of the erbB family in the neoplastic transformation of the human colon, we analysed the protein expression of these four members by immunohistochemistry in paraffin-embedded specimens from 125 resected colorectal cancers. Our data showed that for EGFR expression, 62 (50%) were scored as '+', and 2 (2%) as '++'. For erbB2 expression, 39 (31%) were classified as '+', and 5 (4%) as '++'. For erbB3 expression, 43 (34%) were scored as '+', and 3 (2%) as '++'. A significantly higher percentage of overexpressed erbB3 was observed in early stage carcinomas (Dukes' stage A or B) (50%) than in advanced stage cancers (Dukes' stage C or D) (15%) (P<0.0001). For erbB4 expression, 22 (18%) were scored as '+', and 5 (4%) as '++'. Early stage patients had a lower percentage of erbB4 overexpression than the late stage ones (18% versus 28%). Concomitant overexpression of erbB2 and erbB3 occurred in 21% (16/78) of the early stage carcinomas, whereas it occurred in only 2% (1/47) of the late stage ones (P=0.003). Conversely, simultaneous overexpression of erbB2 and erbB4 occurred in 17% (8/47) of the late stage carcinomas but in only 4% (3/78) of the early stage ones (P=0.02). Overexpression of EGFR, erbB2, erbB3 or erbB4 alone was not significantly associated with a shortened survival. However, patients with a simultaneous overexpression of erbB2 and erbB4 had a shorter overall survival time than others in the univariate analysis (P=0.01). This significance disappeared after adjustment for Dukes' staging in the Cox model. In conclusion, overexpressed erbB3 was common in early stage colorectal cancers, but its prevalence was significantly reduced in late stage ones. The percentage of its coexpression with erbB2 was significantly higher in early stage than in late-stage cancers. Heterodimerisation between erbB2 and erbB4 may play a role in the late stages of carcinogenesis.
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