The receptor tyrosine kinase Her2, an intensely pursued drug target, differs from other members of the EGFR family in that it does not bind EGF-like ligands, relying instead on heterodimerization with other (ligand-bound) EGFR-family receptors for activation. The structural basis for Her2 heterodimerization, however, remains poorly understood. The unexpected recent finding of asymmetric ectodomain dimer structures of Drosophila EGFR (dEGFR) suggests a possible structural basis for Her2 heterodimerization, but all available structures for dimers of human EGFR family ectodomains are symmetric. Here, we report results from long-timescale molecular dynamics simulations indicating that a single ligand is necessary and sufficient to stabilize the ectodomain interface of Her2 heterodimers, which assume an asymmetric conformation similar to that of dEGFR dimers. This structural parallelism suggests a dimerization mechanism that has been conserved in the evolution of the EGFR family from Drosophila to human.
ErbB proteins are found in most multi-cellular organisms, and are involved in the regulation of a number of important cellular processes, including proliferation, migration, and differentiation. Humans have four ErbB proteins, which span the plasma membrane of cells. These proteins respond to interactions with molecules outside the cell—such as growth factors and hormones—by sending signals along the appropriate signaling pathway within the cell.
ErbB proteins have three portions: an ectodomain that extends outside the cell; a single helix that spans the membrane; and a cytoplasmic domain inside the cell. When a signaling ligand molecule outside the cell binds to the ectodomain of an ErbB protein, this protein must then combine with another ErbB protein to form a dimer before a signal can be sent within the cell. These dimers can include two copies of the same ErbB protein or two different ErbB proteins. However, one of the ErbB proteins—Her2—works in a different way. It cannot bind ligands outside the cell, and it can only send a signal within the cell if it first forms a dimer with an ErbB protein of another type, which itself must be bound to an external ligand.
The four ErbB proteins diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently, yet they are now diverse enough to play key roles in a variety of complex signaling networks. In particular, the fact that Her2 cannot bind external ligands, and that it must form a dimer with a different ErbB protein before it can send a signal, has led to suggestions that the role of Her2 is to amplify the signals from other ErbB proteins. Since high levels of Her2 are associated with aggressive forms of breast and ovarian cancer, understanding how it is activated could improve our understanding of these cancers.
Arkhipov et al. have now used computer simulations to model how Her2 forms dimers with other ErbB proteins in human cells. They based these simulations on crystal structures of human ErbB proteins and dEGFR, a growth-factor receptor found in fruit flies that closely resembles the ErbB proteins found in humans. They found that the dimers were stable as long as one protein within the dimer was bound to a ligand. Removing this ligand, however, distorted the ectodomain of the host protein, creating a gap that weakened the dimer and prevented Her2 from sending a signal within the cell. Similar results were obtained with the fruit fly dEGFR proteins. These simulations suggest that ErbB proteins form dimers and send signals through a mechanism conserved in evolution. Research in this field might help ongoing efforts to develop new treatments for human tumors characterized by high levels of Her2 expression.