EGFR-induced suppression of HPV E6/E7 is mediated by microRNA-9-5p silencing of BRD4 protein in HPV-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma

Cell Death Dis. 2022 Nov 4;13(11):921. doi: 10.1038/s41419-022-05269-8.


EGFR upregulation is an established biomarker of treatment resistance and aggressiveness in head and neck cancers (HNSCC). EGFR-targeted therapies have shown benefits for HPV-negative HNSCC; surprisingly, inhibiting EGFR in HPV-associated HNSCC led to inferior therapeutic outcomes suggesting opposing roles for EGFR in the two HNSCC subtypes. The current study aimed to understand the link between EGFR and HPV-infected HNSCC particularly the regulation of HPV oncoproteins E6 and E7. We demonstrate that EGFR overexpression suppresses cellular proliferation and increases radiosensitivity of HPV-positive HNSCC cell lines. EGFR overexpression inhibited protein expression of BRD4, a known cellular transcriptional regulator of HPV E6/E7 expression and DNA damage repair facilitator. Inhibition of EGFR by cetuximab restored the expression of BRD4 leading to increased HPV E6 and E7 transcription. Concordantly, pharmacological inhibition of BRD4 led to suppression of HPV E6 and E7 transcription, delayed cellular proliferation and sensitised HPV-positive HNSCC cells to ionising radiation. This effect was shown to be mediated through EGFR-induced upregulation of microRNA-9-5p and consequent silencing of its target BRD4 at protein translational level, repressing HPV E6 and E7 transcription and restoring p53 tumour suppressor functions. These results suggest a novel mechanism for EGFR inhibition of HPV E6/E7 oncoprotein expression through an epigenetic pathway, independent of MAPK, but mediated through microRNA-9-5p/BRD4 regulation. Therefore, targeting EGFR may not be the best course of therapy for certain cancer types including HPV-positive HNSCC, while targeting specific signalling pathways such as BRD4 could provide a better and potentially new treatment to improve HNSCC therapeutic outcome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / pathology
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs* / genetics
  • MicroRNAs* / therapeutic use
  • Nuclear Proteins / genetics
  • Nuclear Proteins / therapeutic use
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral* / genetics
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral* / metabolism
  • Papillomavirus E7 Proteins / genetics
  • Papillomavirus E7 Proteins / metabolism
  • Papillomavirus Infections*
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / therapeutic use


  • Papillomavirus E7 Proteins
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Transcription Factors
  • Oncogene Proteins, Viral
  • MicroRNAs
  • ErbB Receptors
  • BRD4 protein, human
  • Cell Cycle Proteins
  • EGFR protein, human