Concurrent Inhibition of ERK and Farnesyltransferase Suppresses the Growth of HRAS Mutant Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Mol Cancer Ther. 2022 May 4;21(5):762-774. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-21-0142.


Human papilloma virus (HPV)-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is a common cancer worldwide with an unmet need for more effective, less toxic treatments. Currently, both the disease and the treatment of HNSCC cause significant mortality and morbidity. Targeted therapies hold new promise for patients with HPV-negative status whose tumors harbor oncogenic HRAS mutations. Recent promising clinical results have renewed interest in the development of farnesyltransferase inhibitors (FTIs) as a therapeutic strategy for HRAS-mutant cancers. With the advent of clinical evaluation of the FTI tipifarnib for the treatment of HRAS-mutant HNSCC, we investigated the activity of tipifarnib and inhibitors of HRAS effector signaling in HRAS-mutant HNSCC cell lines. First, we validated that HRAS is a cancer driver in HRAS-mutant HNSCC lines. Second, we showed that treatment with the FTI tipifarnib largely phenocopied HRAS silencing, supporting HRAS as a key target of FTI antitumor activity. Third, we performed reverse-phase protein array analyses to profile FTI treatment-induced changes in global signaling, and conducted CRISPR/Cas9 genetic loss-of-function screens to identify previously unreported genes and pathways that modulate sensitivity to tipifarnib. Fourth, we determined that concurrent inhibition of HRAS effector signaling (ERK, PI3K, mTORC1) increased sensitivity to tipifarnib treatment, in part by overcoming tipifarnib-induced compensatory signaling. We also determined that ERK inhibition could block tipifarnib-induced epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, providing a potential basis for the effectiveness of this combination. Our results support future investigations of these and other combination treatments for HRAS mutant HNSCC.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Farnesyltranstransferase / metabolism
  • Farnesyltranstransferase / therapeutic use
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Papillomavirus Infections*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras) / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras) / metabolism
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / drug therapy
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / genetics


  • Farnesyltranstransferase
  • HRAS protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras)