Breast cancer cells with acquired resistance to the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib show persistent activation of MAPK signaling

Nicola Normanno, Manuela Campiglio, Monica R Maiello, Antonella De Luca, Mario Mancino, Marianna Gallo, Amelia D'Alessio, Sylvie Menard
Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 2008, 112 (1): 25-33
Although the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is frequently expressed in human primary breast carcinoma, the majority of breast cancer patients do not respond to treatment with EGFR tyrosine-kinase inhibitors such as gefitinib. We isolated through a stepwise dose escalation of the drug two gefitinib-resistant SK-Br-3 clones, ZD6 and ZD10 (ZD) cells, which showed, respectively, a three- to five-fold increase in the IC50 for gefitinib as compared with parental cells. The levels of expression of EGFR were increased in ZD cells as compared with wild-type SK-Br-3 cells. The phosphorylation of EGFR, ErbB-2, ErbB-3 and Akt was significantly reduced in gefitinib-resistant cells. In contrast, ZD cells showed levels of MAPK phosphorylation similar to untreated wild-type cells when cultured in presence of gefitinib. Persistent activation of MAPK was also observed in gefitinib-resistant clones isolated from MDA-MB-175 and MDA-MB-361 breast cancer cell lines. ZD cells showed an increased sensitivity to the MEK inhibitor PD98059 as compared with SK-Br-3 cells, and a synergistic anti-tumor effect was observed when ZD cells were treated with a combination of gefitinib and PD98059. Overexpression of a constitutively activated form of p42-MAPK in SK-Br-3 cells resulted in an approximately 50% increase in the IC50 to gefitinib. Finally, culture of ZD10 resistant cells in absence of gefitinib led to reversion of the resistant phenotype. These observations suggest that MAPK signaling might play a role in the resistance that develops in breast cancer cells after long-term exposure to gefitinib.

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