Background: Although it is accepted that metastatic colorectal cancers (mCRCs) that carry activating mutations in KRAS are unresponsive to anti-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) monoclonal antibodies, a significant fraction of KRAS wild-type (wt) mCRCs are also unresponsive to anti-EGFR therapy. Genes encoding EGFR ligands amphiregulin (AREG) and epiregulin (EREG) are promising gene expression-based markers but have not been incorporated into a test to dichotomise KRAS wt mCRC patients with respect to sensitivity to anti-EGFR treatment.
Methods: We used RT-PCR to test 110 candidate gene expression markers in primary tumours from 144 KRAS wt mCRC patients who received monotherapy with the anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab. Results were correlated with multiple clinical endpoints: disease control, objective response, and progression-free survival (PFS).
Results: Expression of many of the tested candidate genes, including EREG and AREG, strongly associate with all clinical endpoints. Using multivariate analysis with two-layer five-fold cross-validation, we constructed a four-gene predictive classifier. Strikingly, patients below the classifier cutpoint had PFS and disease control rates similar to those of patients with KRAS mutant mCRC.
Conclusion: Gene expression appears to identify KRAS wt mCRC patients who receive little benefit from cetuximab. It will be important to test this model in an independent validation study.