Mucormycosis is a life-threatening, invasive fungal infection that is caused by various species belonging to the order Mucorales. Rhizopus species are the most common cause of the disease, responsible for approximately 70% of all cases of mucormycosis. During pulmonary mucormycosis, inhaled Rhizopus spores must adhere to and invade airway epithelial cells in order to establish infection. The molecular mechanisms that govern this interaction are poorly understood. We performed an unbiased survey of the host transcriptional response during early stages of Rhizopus arrhizus var. delemar (R. delemar) infection in a murine model of pulmonary mucormycosis using transcriptome sequencing (RNA-seq). Network analysis revealed activation of the host's epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling. Consistent with the RNA-seq results, EGFR became phosphorylated upon in vitro infection of human alveolar epithelial cells with several members of the Mucorales, and this phosphorylated, activated form of EGFR colocalized with R. delemar spores. Inhibition of EGFR signaling with cetuximab or gefitinib, specific FDA-approved inhibitors of EGFR, significantly reduced the ability of R. delemar to invade and damage airway epithelial cells. Furthermore, gefitinib treatment significantly prolonged survival of mice with pulmonary mucormycosis, reduced tissue fungal burden, and attenuated the activation of EGFR in response to pulmonary mucormycosis. These results indicate EGFR represents a novel host target to block invasion of alveolar epithelial cells by R. delemar, and inhibition of EGFR signaling provides a novel approach for treating mucormycosis by repurposing an FDA-approved drug.IMPORTANCE Mucormycosis is an increasingly common, highly lethal fungal infection with very limited treatment options. Using a combination of in vivo animal models, transcriptomics, cell biology, and pharmacological approaches, we have demonstrated that Mucorales fungi activate EGFR signaling to induce fungal uptake into airway epithelial cells. Inhibition of EGFR signaling with existing FDA-approved drugs significantly increased survival following R. arrhizus var. delemar infection in mice. This study enhances our understanding of how Mucorales fungi invade host cells during the establishment of pulmonary mucormycosis and provides a proof-of-concept for the repurposing of FDA-approved drugs that target EGFR function.
Keywords: EGFR; Rhizopus; gefitinib; mucormycosis.
Copyright © 2018 Watkins et al.