This happens usually after the binding of a small protein, the epidermal growth factor, which circulates in the blood stream and serves as communicator to transmit signals that regulate cell growth. HER2 is special in the sense that it does not need the growth factor protein in order to form dimers. It is thus capable of triggering cell growth without external regulation.
In certain types of breast cancer, amplified levels of HER2 and its dimerization are known to drive unrestricted cell growth. HER2-tailored antibody-based therapeutics entered clinical practice more than a decade ago. These drugs aim to prevent cell growth triggered by HER2 homo- and/or heterodimerization.
The researchers around de Jonge pioneered the electron microscopy method Liquid STEM to imaging these receptors on cancer cells. The cells were examined on a microchip placed in the electron microscope, and remained intact and in liquid.
"We found out, that HER2 dimers appeared to be absent from a small sub-population of resting SKBR3 cells. Could such cells survive the therapy and then develop into a drug resistant cancer at a later stage? It thus seems to be of key significance to study this sub-population of cells with exceptional phenotype” says the author.