Response to epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors in non-small cell lung cancer cells: limited antiproliferative effects and absence of apoptosis associated with persistent activity of extracellular signal-regulated kinase or Akt kinase pathways

Maarten L Janmaat, Frank A E Kruyt, José A Rodriguez, Giuseppe Giaccone
Clinical Cancer Research 2003, 9 (6): 2316-26
The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is an important novel target for anticancer therapy. In this study, we examined the molecular mechanisms that underlie the antitumor effects of the anti-EGFR monoclonal antibody C225 (Cetuximab) and the selective EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor ZD1839 (Iressa; AstraZeneca) in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines. Cell growth, assessed by the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide assay, was inhibited at low concentrations of ZD1839 and C225 in control A431 cells, whereas the NSCLC cell lines were comparatively more resistant. In A431 cells, but not in the NSCLC cells, ZD1839 treatment resulted in a modest increase in DNA fragmentation, the externalization of phosphatidyl serine, and the activation of caspase-3, known markers of apoptotic cell death. However, poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase cleavage was not detected, and caspase inhibition by carbobenzoxy-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone partially reduced ZD1839-generated DNA fragmentation. Overexpression of the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2 in A431 cells suppressed the cytotoxicity upon anti-EGFR treatment. These results thus demonstrate that the toxic effect of ZD1839 in A431 cells is caused by a form of cell death that involves a mitochondrial step and is, at least in part, dependent on caspase activation. EGFR expression levels showed no significant correlation with sensitivity to ZD1839 and C225. Evaluation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase/extracellular signal-regulated kinase and phosphatidylinositol 3'-kinase/Akt pathways showed considerable inhibition of these pathways by ZD1839 and C225 in A431 cells, whereas one or both of these pathways remained active upon anti-EGFR treatment in NSCLC cells. In addition, treatment with specific inhibitors of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase or phosphatidylinositol 3'-kinase resulted in a smaller effect on proliferation than simultaneous treatment with both inhibitors, whereas induction of apoptosis was observed only when both pathways were blocked. Together, these data suggest that persistent activity of either of these signaling pathways is involved in the lack of sensitivity of NSCLC cell lines to EGFR inhibitors.

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