Mutations in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene are associated with increased sensitivity of lung cancers to kinase inhibitors like erlotinib. Mechanisms of cell death that occur after kinase inhibition in these oncogene-dependent tumors have not been well delineated. We sought to improve understanding of this process in order to provide insight into mechanisms of sensitivity and/or resistance to tyrosine kinase inhibitors and to uncover new targets for therapy.
Methods and Findings
Using a panel of human lung cancer cell lines that harbor EGFR mutations and a variety of biochemical, molecular, and cellular techniques, we show that EGFR kinase inhibition in drug-sensitive cells provokes apoptosis via the intrinsic pathway of caspase activation. The process requires induction of the proapoptotic BH3-only BCL2 family member BIM (i.e., BCL2-like 11, or BCL2L11); erlotinib dramatically induces BIM levels in sensitive but not in resistant cell lines, and knockdown of BIM expression by RNA interference virtually eliminates drug-induced cell killing in vitro. BIM status is regulated at both transcriptional and posttranscriptional levels and is influenced by the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signaling cascade downstream of EGFR. Consistent with these findings, lung tumors and xenografts from mice bearing mutant EGFR-dependent lung adenocarcinomas display increased concentrations of Bim after erlotinib treatment. Moreover, an inhibitor of antiapoptotic proteins, ABT-737, enhances erlotinib-induced cell death in vitro.
In drug-sensitive EGFR mutant lung cancer cells, induction of BIM is essential for apoptosis triggered by EGFR kinase inhibitors. This finding implies that the intrinsic pathway of caspase activation may influence sensitivity and/or resistance of EGFR mutant lung tumor cells to EGFR kinase inhibition. Manipulation of the intrinsic pathway could be a therapeutic strategy to enhance further the clinical outcomes of patients with EGFR mutant lung tumors.
Using a panel of human drug-sensitive EGFR mutant lung cancer cells, William Pao and colleagues show that induction of BIM, a member of the BCL2 family, is essential for apoptosis triggered by EGFR kinase inhibitors.
Lung cancer, a common type of cancer, has a very low cure rate. Like all cancers, it occurs when cells begin to divide uncontrollably because of changes (mutations) in their genes. Chemotherapy drugs kill these rapidly dividing cells but, because some normal tissues are sensitive to these agents, it is hard to destroy the cancer without causing serious side effects. Recently, “targeted” therapies have brought new hope to some patients with cancer. These therapies attack the changes in cancer cells that allow them to divide uncontrollably but leave normal cells unscathed. One of the first molecules for which a targeted therapy was developed was the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). In normal cells, messenger proteins bind to EGFR and activate its “tyrosine kinase,” an enzyme that sticks phosphate groups on tyrosine (an amino acid) in other proteins. These proteins then tell the cell to divide. Alterations to this signaling system drive uncontrolled cell division in some cancers so blocking the EGFR signaling pathway should stop these cancers growing. Indeed, some lung cancers with mutations in the tyrosine kinase of EGFR shrink dramatically when treated with gefitinib or erlotinib, two tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs).
Why Was This Study Done?
TKI-sensitive lung cancers shrink when treated with TKIs because of drug-induced cell death, but what are the molecular mechanisms underlying this death? A better understanding of how TKIs kill cancer cells might provide new insights into why not all cancer cells with mutations in EGFR (the gene from which EGFR is made) are sensitive to TKIs. It might also uncover new targets for therapy. TKIs do not completely kill lung cancers, but if the mechanism of TKI-induced cell death were understood, it might be possible to enhance their effects. In this study, the researchers have investigated how cell death occurs after kinase inhibition in a panel of human lung cancer cell lines (cells isolated from human tumors that grow indefinitely in dishes) that carry EGFR mutations.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers show, first, that erlotinib induces a type of cell death called apoptosis in erlotinib-sensitive cell lines but not in resistant cell lines. Apoptosis can be activated by two major pathways. In this instance, the researchers report, the so-called “intrinsic” pathway activates apoptosis. This pathway is stimulated by proapoptotic members of the BCL2 family of proteins and is blocked by antiapoptotic members, so the researchers examined the effect of erlotinib treatment on the expression of BCL2 family members in the EGFR mutant cell lines. Erlotinib treatment increased the expression of the proapoptotic protein BIM in sensitive but not in resistant cell lines. It also removed phosphate groups from BIM—dephosphorylated BIM is a more potent proapoptotic protein. Conversely, blocking BIM expression using a technique called RNA interference virtually eliminated the ability of erlotinib to kill EGFR mutant cell lines. The researchers also report that erlotinib treatment increased BIM expression in erlotinib-sensitive lung tumors growing in mice and that an inhibitor of the anti-apoptotic protein BCL2 enhanced erlotinib-induced death in drug-sensitive cells growing in dishes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that BIM activity is essential for the apoptosis triggered by TKIs in drug-sensitive lung cancer cells that carry EGFR mutations, and that treatment of these cells with TKIs induces both the expression and dephosphorylation of BIM. The finding that the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis activation is involved in TKI-induced cell death suggests that changes in this pathway (possibly mutations in some of its components) might influence the sensitivity of EGFR mutant lung cancers to TKIs. Finally, these findings suggest that giving drugs that affect the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis activation at the same time as TKIs might further improve the clinical outcome for patients with EGFR mutant tumors. Such combinations will have to be tested in clinical trials before being used routinely.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040294.
US National Cancer Institute information for patients and professionals on lung cancer (in English and Spanish)
Information for patients from Cancer Research UK on lung cancer including information on treatment with TKIs
Wikipedia pages on apoptosis, epidermal growth factor receptor, and BCL-2 proteins (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
Information for patients from Cancerbackup on erlotinib and gefitinib