The hypoxic tumor microenvironment and drug resistance against EGFR inhibitors: Preclinical study in cetuximab-sensitive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines

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Abstract

Background: Increased expression of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is observed in more than 90% of all head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). Therefore, EGFR has emerged as a promising therapeutic target. Nevertheless, drug resistance remains a major challenge and an important potential mechanism of drug resistance involves the hypoxic tumor microenvironment. Therefore, we investigated the cytotoxic effect of the EGFR-targeting agents cetuximab and erlotinib under normoxia versus hypoxia. Findings: Three cetuximab-sensitive HNSCC cell lines (SC263, LICR-HN2 and LICR-HN5) were treated with either cetuximab or erlotinib. Cells were incubated under normal or reduced oxygen conditions (<0.1% O2) for 24 or 72 h immediately after drug addition. Cell survival was assessed with the sulforhodamine B assay. Cetuximab and erlotinib established a dose-dependent growth inhibition under both normal and prolonged reduced oxygen conditions in all three HNSCC cell lines. However, a significantly increased sensitivity to cetuximab was observed in SC263 cells exposed to hypoxia for 72 h (p = 0.05), with IC50 values of 2.38 ± 0.59 nM, 0.64 ± 0.38 nM, and 0.10 ± 0.05 nM under normoxia, hypoxia for 24h and hypoxia for 72 h, respectively. LICR-HN5 cells showed an increased sensitivity towards erlotinib when cells were incubated under hypoxia for 24 h (p = 0.05). Conclusions: Our results suggest that both EGFR-inhibitors cetuximab and erlotinib maintain their growth inhibitory effect under hypoxia. These results suggest that resistance to anti-EGFR therapy in HNSCC is probably not the result of hypoxic regions within the tumor and other mechanisms are involved.

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Boeckx, C., Van Den Bossche, J., De Pauw, I., Peeters, M., Lardon, F., Baay, M., & Wouters, A. (2015). The hypoxic tumor microenvironment and drug resistance against EGFR inhibitors: Preclinical study in cetuximab-sensitive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines. BMC Research Notes, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-015-1197-6

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