Afatinib is a second generation epidermal growth factor receptor-tyrosine kinase inhibitor (EGFR-TKI) characterized as an irreversible pan-human EGFR (HER) family inhibitor. Afatinib remains effective for a subpopulation of patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with acquired resistance to first generation EGFF-TKIs such as erlotinib. Heregulin activates HER3 in an autocrine fashion and causes erlotinib resistance in NSCLC. Here we examine whether afatinib is effective against heregulin-overexpressing NSCLCs harboring EGFR activating mutations. Afatinib but not erlotinib decreased EGFR mutant NSCLC PC9HRG cell proliferation in vitro and in mouse xenografts. Afatinib inhibited phosphorylation of the cell signaling pathway proteins HER3, EGFR, HER2, and HER4, likely by prevention of trans-phosphorylation as HER3 kinase activity is inadequate for auto-phosphorylation. Afatinib, unlike erlotinib, inhibited AKT activation, resulting in elevated apoptosis in PC9HRG cells. Clinically, a subpopulation of 33 patients with EGFR mutations and NSCLC who had received first generation EGFR-TKIs exhibited elevated plasma heregulin levels compared to healthy volunteers; one of these achieved a response with afatinib therapy despite having previously developed erlotinib resistance. Afatinib can overcome heregulin-mediated resistance to erlotinib in EGFR mutant NSCLC. Further studies are necessary to determine whether heregulin can predict afatinib efficacy after development offirst generation EGFR-TKI resistance.
Keywords: afatinib; erlotinib; heregulin; human epidermal growth factor receptor; non-small cell lung cancer.