Functional RNAi Screens Define Distinct Protein Kinase Vulnerabilities in EGFR-Dependent HNSCC Cell Lines

Mol Pharmacol. 2019 Dec;96(6):862-870. doi: 10.1124/mol.119.117804. Epub 2019 Sep 25.


The inhibitory epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) antibody, cetuximab, is an approved therapy for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Despite tumor response observed in some HNSCC patients, cetuximab alone or combined with radio- or chemotherapy fails to yield long-term control or cures. We hypothesize that a flexible receptor tyrosine kinase coactivation signaling network supports HNSCC survival in the setting of EGFR blockade, and that drugs disrupting this network will provide superior tumor control when combined with EGFR inhibitors. In this work, we submitted EGFR-dependent HNSCC cell lines to RNA interference-based functional genomics screens to identify, in an unbiased fashion, essential protein kinases for growth and survival as well as synthetic lethal targets for combined inhibition with EGFR antagonists. Mechanistic target of rapamycin kinase (MTOR) and erythroblastosis oncogene B (ERBB)3 were identified as high-ranking essential kinase hits in the HNSCC cell lines. MTOR dependency was confirmed by distinct short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) and high sensitivity of the cell lines to AZD8055, whereas ERBB3 dependency was validated by shRNA-mediated silencing. Furthermore, a synthetic lethal kinome shRNA screen with a pan-ERBB inhibitor, AZD8931, identified multiple components of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway, consistent with ERK reactivation and/or incomplete ERK pathway inhibition in response to EGFR inhibitor monotherapy. As validation, distinct mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MEK) inhibitors yielded synergistic growth inhibition when combined with the EGFR inhibitors, gefitinib and AZD8931. The findings identify ERBB3 and MTOR as important pharmacological vulnerabilities in HNSCC and support combining MEK and EGFR inhibitors to enhance clinical efficacy in HNSCC. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Many cancers are driven by nonmutated receptor tyrosine kinase coactivation networks that defy full inhibition with single targeted drugs. This study identifies erythroblastosis oncogene B (ERBB)3 as an essential protein kinase in epidermal growth factor receptor-dependent head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC) cell lines and a synthetic lethal interaction with the extracellular signal-regulated kinase mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway that provides a rationale for combining pan-ERBB and mitogen-activated protein kinase inhibitors as a therapeutic approach in subsets of HNSCC.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Protein Kinases / genetics
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • RNA Interference / physiology*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / genetics
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / metabolism*


  • Protein Kinases
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors