Background: Squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck (SCCHN), unlike normal mucosal squamous epithelial cells, overexpress epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) messenger RNA and protein. EGFR protein is required to sustain the proliferation of SCCHN cells in vitro. To determine whether EGFR expression contributes to tumor growth, we investigated the effect of suppressing EGFR expression in tumor xenografts through in situ expression of antisense oligonucleotides.
Methods: Intratumoral cationic liposome-mediated gene transfer was used to deliver plasmids capable of expressing sense or antisense EGFR sequences into human head and neck tumors, which were grown as subcutaneous xenografts in nude mice. The oligonucleotides were expressed under the control of the U6 RNA promoter.
Results: Direct inoculation of the EGFR antisense (but not the corresponding sense) plasmid construct into established SCCHN xenografts resulted in inhibition of tumor growth, suppression of EGFR protein expression, and an increased rate of apoptosis (programmed cell death). Sustained antitumor effects were observed for up to 2 weeks after the treatments were discontinued.
Conclusion: These results suggest that interference with EGFR expression, using an antisense-based gene therapy approach, may be an effective means of treating EGFR-overexpressing tumors, including SCCHN.