Background Even though targeted therapies are available for cancers expressing oncogenic epidermal growth receptor (EGFR) and (or) human EGFR2 (HER2), acquired or intrinsic resistance often confounds therapy success. Common mechanisms of therapy resistance involve activating receptor point mutations and (or) upregulation of signaling downstream of EGFR/HER2 to Akt and (or) mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathways. However, additional pathways of resistance may exist thus, confounding successful therapy.
Methods To determine novel mechanisms of EGFR/HER2 therapy resistance in breast cancer, gefitinib or lapatinib resistant variants were created from SKBR3 breast cancer cells. Syngenic therapy sensitive and resistant SKBR3 variants were characterized for mechanisms of resistance by mammosphere assays, viability assays, and western blotting for total and phospho proteins.
Results Gefitinib and lapatinib treatments reduced mammosphere formation in the parental cells, but not in the therapy resistant variants, indicating enhanced cancer stem cell-like and epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) characteristics in therapy resistant cells. The therapy resistant variants did not show significant changes in established therapy resistant pathways of Akt and MAPK activities downstream of EGFR/HER2. However, these cells exhibited elevated expression and activation of the small GTPase Rac, which is a pivotal intermediate of GFR signaling in EMT and metastasis. Therefore, the potential of the Rac inhibitors EHop-016 and MBQ-167 to overcome therapy resistance was tested and found to inhibit viability and induce apoptosis of therapy resistant cells.
Conclusions Rac inhibition may represent a viable strategy for treatment of EGFR/HER2 targeted therapy resistant breast cancer.