Molecular phenotype predicts sensitivity of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck to epidermal growth factor receptor inhibition

Mol Oncol. 2013 Jun;7(3):359-68. doi: 10.1016/j.molonc.2012.11.001. Epub 2012 Nov 14.


Despite nearly universal expression of the wild-type epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and reproducible activity of EGFR inhibitors in patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), the majority of patients will not have objective responses. The mechanisms of this intrinsic resistance are not well established. We hypothesized that sensitivity to EGFR inhibitors can be predicted based on the inhibitors' effects on downstream signaling. Cell viability assays were used to assess sensitivity to the EGFR inhibitor gefitinib (ZD1839) in 8 SCCHN cell lines. Fluorescence in-situ hybridization showed the two most sensitive lines to be highly gene-amplified for EGFR. Western blotting confirmed that phosphoEGFR was inhibited at low concentrations of gefitinib in all lines tested. Phosphorylation of downstream signaling protein AKT was inhibited in sensitive lines while inhibition of phosphoERK displayed no relationship to gefitinib efficacy. Phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) expression was evident in all cell lines. Activating PIK3CA mutations were found in two resistant cell lines where pAKT was not inhibited by gefitinib. In resistant cell lines harboring PIK3CA mutations, a PI3K inhibitor, LY294002, or AKT siRNA reduced cell viability with an additive effect demonstrated in combination with gefitinib. Additionally, LY294002 alone and in combination with gefitinib, was effective at treating PIK3CA mutated tumors xenografted into nude mice. Taken together this suggests that constitutively active AKT is a mechanism of intrinsic gefitinib resistance in SCCHN. This resistance can be overcome through targeting of the PI3K/AKT pathway in combination with EGFR inhibition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Female
  • Gefitinib
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Mutation
  • Phenotype
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / genetics
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism
  • Quinazolines / pharmacology*
  • Quinazolines / therapeutic use
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Quinazolines
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • PIK3CA protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt
  • Gefitinib