Background and purpose: The role of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in the poor outcome of EGFR-overexpressing SCCHN was evaluated.
Material and methods: SCCHN cell lines were characterized for their cell morphology and expression of EGFR and the EMT-associated factors E-cadherin, vimentin and Snail1. The migratory potential of cells was assessed in motility assays. Response to irradiation and cetuximab was determined using clonogenic survival assays.
Results: High basal expression of E-cadherin but low to absent vimentin expression could be observed in all SCCHN cell lines. Although E-cadherin expression levels did not change after treatment with EGF we observed a significant change in cell morphology resembling EMT. SCCHN cells with high basal levels of Snail1 resulting from constitutive EGFR activation were characterized by mesenchymal-like morphology, elevated migratory potential, reduced sensitivity to irradiation and cetuximab but increased sensitivity to the combined treatment.
Conclusions: Autocrine activation of EGFR leading to EMT is associated with a metastatic phenotype and reduced sensitivity of SCCHN cells to single-modality treatment with cetuximab or irradiation. The potential of Snail1 as biomarker for selection of patients who will mostly benefit from a combination of cetuximab and radiotherapy has to be evaluated in future clinical studies.
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