EGFR is frequently overexpressed in colon cancer. We characterized HT-29 and Caco-2, human colon cancer cell lines, untreated and treated with cetuximab or gefitinib alone and in combination with EGF.
Cell growth was determined using a variation on the MTT assay. Cell-cycle analysis was conducted by flow cytometry. Immunohistochemistry was performed to evaluate EGFR expression and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) evidenced the ultrastructural morphology. Gene expression profiling was performed using hybridization of the microarray Ocimum Pan Human 40 K array A.
Caco-2 and HT-29 were respectively 66.25 and 59.24 % in G0/G1. They maintained this level of cell cycle distribution after treatment, suggesting a predominantly differentiated state. Treatment of Caco-2 with EGF or the two EGFR inhibitors produced a significant reduction in their viability. SEM clearly showed morphological cellular transformations in the direction of cellular death in both cell lines treated with EGFR inhibitors. HT-29 and Caco-2 displayed an important reduction of the microvilli (which also lose their erect position in Caco-2), possibly invalidating microvilli absorption function. HT-29 treated with cetuximab lost their boundary contacts and showed filipodi; when treated with gefitinib, they showed some vesicles: generally membrane reshaping is evident. Both cell lines showed a similar behavior in terms of on/off switched genes upon treatment with cetuximab. The gefitinib global gene expression pattern was different for the 2 cell lines; gefitinib treatment induced more changes, but directly correlated with EGF treatment.
In cetuximab or gefitinib plus EGF treatments there was possible summation of the morphological effects: cells seemed more weakly affected by the transformation towards apoptosis. The genes appeared to be less stimulated than for single drug cases.
This is the first study to have systematically investigated the effect of cetuximab or gefitinib, alone and in combination with EGF, on human colon cancer cell lines. The EGFR inhibitors have a weaker effect in the presence of EGF that binds EGFR. Cetuximab treatment showed an expression pattern that inversely correlates with EGF treatment. We found interesting cyto-morphological features closely relating to gene expression profile. Both drugs have an effect on differentiation towards cellular death.