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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.
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