Background: Lung adenocarcinomas from patients who respond to the tyrosine kinase inhibitors gefitinib (Iressa) or erlotinib (Tarceva) usually harbor somatic gain-of-function mutations in exons encoding the kinase domain of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Despite initial responses, patients eventually progress by unknown mechanisms of "acquired" resistance.
Methods and findings: We show that in two of five patients with acquired resistance to gefitinib or erlotinib, progressing tumors contain, in addition to a primary drug-sensitive mutation in EGFR, a secondary mutation in exon 20, which leads to substitution of methionine for threonine at position 790 (T790M) in the kinase domain. Tumor cells from a sixth patient with a drug-sensitive EGFR mutation whose tumor progressed on adjuvant gefitinib after complete resection also contained the T790M mutation. This mutation was not detected in untreated tumor samples. Moreover, no tumors with acquired resistance had KRAS mutations, which have been associated with primary resistance to these drugs. Biochemical analyses of transfected cells and growth inhibition studies with lung cancer cell lines demonstrate that the T790M mutation confers resistance to EGFR mutants usually sensitive to either gefitinib or erlotinib. Interestingly, a mutation analogous to T790M has been observed in other kinases with acquired resistance to another kinase inhibitor, imatinib (Gleevec).
Conclusion: In patients with tumors bearing gefitinib- or erlotinib-sensitive EGFR mutations, resistant subclones containing an additional EGFR mutation emerge in the presence of drug. This observation should help guide the search for more effective therapy against a specific subset of lung cancers.