Izumi H, et al. Mol Cancer Ther 2020.
Cetuximab, a monoclonal antibody targeting EGFR, is a standard of care for the treatment for locally advanced or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). However, despite overexpression of EGFR in over 90% of HNSCC lesions, most HNSCC patients fail to respond to cetuximab treatment. In addition, there are no available biomarkers to predict sensitivity or resistance to cetuximab in the clinic. Here, we sought to advance precision medicine approaches for HNSCC by identifying
PI3K-mTOR signaling-network-specific cetuximab resistance mechanisms. We first analyzed the frequency of genomic alterations in genes involved in the PI3K-mTOR signaling circuitry in the HNSCC TCGA dataset. Experimentally, we took advantage of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing approaches to systematically explore the contribution of genomic alterations in each tumor suppressor gene (TSG) controlling the PI3K-mTOR pathway to cetuximab resistance in HNSCC cases that do not exhibit PIK3CA mutations. Remarkably, we found that many HNSCC cases exhibit pathway-specific gene copy number loss of multiple TSGs that normally restrain PI3K-mTOR signaling. Among them, we found that both engineered and endogenous PTEN gene deletions can mediate resistance to cetuximab. Our findings suggest that PTEN gene copy number loss, which is highly prevalent in HNSCC, may result in sustained PI3K/mTOR signaling independent of EGFR, thereby representing a promising mechanistic biomarker predictive of cetuximab resistance in this cancer type. Further prospective studies are needed to investigate the impact of PTEN loss on cetuximab efficacy in the clinic.