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Resistance of HNSCC cell models to pan-FGFR inhibition depends on the EMT phenotype associating with clinical outcome.

Molecular Cancer 2024 Februrary 22
BACKGROUND: Focal adhesion signaling involving receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK) and integrins co-controls cancer cell survival and therapy resistance. However, co-dependencies between these receptors and therapeutically exploitable vulnerabilities remain largely elusive in HPV-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC).

METHODS: The cytotoxic and radiochemosensitizing potential of targeting 10 RTK and β1 integrin was determined in up to 20 3D matrix-grown HNSCC cell models followed by drug screening and patient-derived organoid validation. RNA sequencing and protein-based biochemical assays were performed for molecular characterization. Bioinformatically identified transcriptomic signatures were applied to patient cohorts.

RESULTS: Fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR 1-4) targeting exhibited the strongest cytotoxic and radiosensitizing effects as monotherapy and combined with β1 integrin inhibition, exceeding the efficacy of the other RTK studied. Pharmacological pan-FGFR inhibition elicited responses ranging from cytotoxicity/radiochemosensitization to resistance/radiation protection. RNA sequence analysis revealed a mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition (MET) in sensitive cell models, whereas resistant cell models exhibited a partial epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Accordingly, inhibition of EMT-associated kinases such as EGFR caused reduced adaptive resistance and enhanced (radio)sensitization to FGFR inhibition cell model- and organoid-dependently. Transferring the EMT-associated transcriptomic profiles to HNSCC patient cohorts not only demonstrated their prognostic value but also provided a conclusive validation of the presence of EGFR-related vulnerabilities that can be strategically exploited for therapeutic interventions.

CONCLUSIONS: This study demonstrates that pan-FGFR inhibition elicits a beneficial radiochemosensitizing and a detrimental radioprotective potential in HNSCC cell models. Adaptive EMT-associated resistance appears to be of clinical importance, and we provide effective molecular approaches to exploit this therapeutically.

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