The potential benefits of drugs directly targeting the ErbB receptors for cancer therapy have led to an extensive development within this field. However, the clinical effects of ErbB receptor-targeting drugs in cancer treatment are limited due to a high frequency of resistance. It has been reported that, when inhibiting the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) with the tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib, increased activation of ErbB3 via MET, or by re-localization of ErbB3 mediates cell survival. Here we show further evidence that members of the ErbB receptor family facilitate resistance to EGFR inhibitor treatment in ErbB2 overexpressing breast cancer cells. We found that gefitinib treatment increased ErbB3 expression, both at protein and mRNA levels. ErbB3 expression was upregulated not only by gefitinib but also by a panel of different EGFR inhibitors, suggesting that inhibition of EGFR in general affects ErbB3 expression. In addition, we found that gefitinib treatment increased ErbB2 expression levels while EGFR inhibitors decreased the activity of ErbB2. Concentrations of gefitinib that decreased phospho-ErbB2 reversely increased ErbB3 levels. We further examined changes induced by gefitinib treatment on mRNA levels of the most common genes known to be involved in breast cancer. As expected, we found that gefitinib downregulated genes whose functions were linked to cellular proliferation, such as Ki-67, topoisomerase II alpha and cyclins, and surprisingly downregulated gene expression of FAS which is involved in apoptotic signaling. Together, our data strongly suggest that resistance to EGFR inhibitors may result from the compensation of other family members and that combinations of anti-cancer drugs are required to increase the sensitivity of these treatments.
Cellular Signalling, 2012, Vol 24, Issue 1, p. 296-301