Background: Treatment with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors can result in clinical response in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) for some unselected patients. EGFR and KRAS mutation status, amplification of EGFR, or gene expression predictors of response can forecast sensitivity to EGFR inhibition.
Methods: Using an NSCLC cell line model system, we identified and characterised microRNA (miRNA) gene expression that predicts response to EGFR inhibition.
Results: Expression of 13 miRNA genes predicts response to EGFR inhibition in cancer cell lines and tumours, and discriminates primary from metastatic tumours. Signature genes target proteins that are enriched for epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) genes. Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition predicts EGFR inhibitor resistance and metastatic behaviour. The EMT transcription factor, ZEB1, shows altered expression in erlotinib-sensitive NSCLC and PDAC, where many signature miRNA genes are upregulated. Ectopic expression of mir-200c alters expression of EMT proteins, sensitivity to erlotinib, and migration in lung cells. Treatment with TGFβ1 changes expression of signature miRNA and EMT proteins and modulates migration in lung cells.
Conclusion: From these data, we hypothesise that the tumour microenvironment elicits TGFβ1 and stimulates a miRNA gene expression program that induces resistance to anti-EGFR therapy and drives lung tumour cells to EMT, invasion, and metastasis.