Context: Poorly differentiated thyroid carcinomas are refractory to common anticancer therapies, and novel inhibitors are being tested in these deadly malignancies. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) tyrosine kinase represents an attractive target for treatment because it is up-regulated in thyroid cancer and plays a role in cancer progression. However, EGFR inhibitors have provided poor results in thyroid carcinomas.
Objective: We evaluated the possible mechanism underlying the resistance of thyroid cancer cells to EGFR inhibitors.
Design: We tested the effect of the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib in a panel of thyroid cancer cell lines.
Results: We found that in most of the cell lines, although gefitinib inhibited EGFR phosphorylation, it was poorly effective in reducing cell viability. gefitinib, however, was able to inhibit epidermal growth factor-induced cell migration and matrix invasion. In most thyroid cancer cell lines, gefitinib significantly inhibited Akt phosphorylation by inhibiting EGFR activation, but it had limited or no effect on ERK phosphorylation. The poor cell response to gefitinib was associated with genetic alterations, leading to constitutive activation of the ERK pathway, including BRAF(V600E) and HRAS(G12A/Q61R) mutations and RET/PTC1 rearrangement. When BRAF(V600E)-positive thyroid cancer cells were incubated with the specific BRAF inhibitor PLX4032, sensitivity to gefitinib was restored. Similar results were obtained with rat sarcoma and RET/papillary thyroid cancer inhibitors.
Conclusions: These results indicate that thyroid cancer resistance to gefitinib is due to the constitutive activation of the mitogenic pathway by either signals downstream of EGFR or other tyrosine kinase receptors. This resistance can be overcome by the combined use of selective inhibitors.