The rising incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated malignancies, especially for oropharyngeal cancers, has highlighted the urgent need to understand how the interplay between high-risk HPV oncogenes and carcinogenic exposure results in squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) development. Here, we describe an inducible mouse model expressing high risk HPV-16 E6/E7 oncoproteins in adults, bypassing the impact of these viral genes during development. HPV-16 E6/E7 genes were targeted to the basal squamous epithelia in transgenic mice using a doxycycline inducible cytokeratin 5 promoter (cK5-rtTA) system. After doxycycline induction, both E6 and E7 were highly expressed, resulting in rapid epidermal hyperplasia with a remarkable expansion of the proliferative cell compartment to the suprabasal layers. Surprisingly, in spite of the massive growth of epithelial cells and their stem cell progenitors, HPV-E6/E7 expression was not sufficient to trigger mTOR activation, a key oncogenic driver in HPV-associated malignancies, and malignant progression to SCC. However, these mice develop SCC rapidly after a single exposure to a skin carcinogen, DMBA, which was increased by the prolonged exposure to a tumor promoter, 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA). Thus, only few oncogenic hits may be sufficient to induce cancer in E6/E7 expressing cells. All HPV-E6/E7 expressing SCC lesions exhibited increased mTOR activation. Remarkably, rapamycin, an mTOR inhibitor, abolished tumor development when administered to HPV-E6/E7 mice prior to DMBA exposure. Our findings revealed that mTOR inhibition protects HPV-E6/E7 expressing tissues form SCC development upon carcinogen exposure, thus supporting the potential clinical use of mTOR inhibitors as a molecular targeted approach for prevention of HPV-associated malignancies.
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