HER2-targeting antibodies (i.e. trastuzumab and pertuzumab) prolong survival in HER2-positive breast cancer patients with extracranial metastases. However, the response of brain metastases to these drugs is poor, and it is hypothesized that the blood-brain barrier (BBB) limits drug delivery to the brain. We investigated whether we could improve the response by temporary disruption of the BBB using focused ultrasound in combination with microbubbles. To study this, we inoculated 30 nude rats with HER2-positive cells derived from a brain metastasis of a breast cancer patient (MDA-MB-361). The animals were divided into three groups: a control-group that received no treatment; an antibody-only group that received six weekly treatments of trastuzumab and pertuzumab; and an ultrasound + antibody group that received trastuzumab and pertuzumab in combination with six weekly sessions of BBB disruption using focused ultrasound. In two animals, the leakiness of the tumors before disruption was evaluated using contrast-enhanced T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging and found that the tumors were not leaky. The same technique was used to evaluate the effectiveness of BBB disruption, which was successful in all sessions.
The tumor in the control animals grew exponentially with a growth constant of 0.042 ± 0.011 mm3/day. None of the antibody-only animals responded to the treatment and the growth constant was 0.033 ± 0.009 mm3/day during the treatment period. Four of the ten animals in the ultrasound + antibody-group showed a response to the treatment with an average growth constant of 0.010 ± 0.007 mm3/day, compared to a growth constant 0.043 ± 0.013 mm3/day for the six non-responders. After the treatment period, the tumors in all groups grew at similar rates. As the tumors were not leaky before BBB disruption and there were no responders in the antibody-only group, these results show that at least in some cases disruption of the BBB is necessary for a response to the antibodies in these brain metastases. Interestingly, only some of the rats responded to the treatment. We did not observe a difference in tumor volume at the start of the treatment, nor in HER2 expression or in contrast-enhancement on MRI between the responders and non-responders to explain this. Better understanding of why certain animals respond is needed and will help in translating this technique to the clinic. In conclusion, we demonstrate that BBB disruption using focused ultrasound in combination with antibody therapy can inhibit growth of breast cancer brain metastasis.