Identification of novel epigenetic mediators of erlotinib resistance in non-small cell lung cancer
Lung cancer is the third most prevalent cancer in the world; however it is the leading cause of cancer related deaths worldwide. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for ~85% of the lung cancer cases. The current strategies to treat NSCLC patients with frequent causal genetic mutations is through targeted therapeutics. Approximately 10-35% of NSCLC patient tumors have activated mutations in the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) resulting in uncontrolled cellular proliferation. The standard-of care for such patients is EGFR-Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (EGFR-TKIs), a class of targeted therapeutics that specifically inhibit EGFR activity. One such EGFR-TKI used in this study is erlotinib. Following erlotinib treatment, tumors rapidly regress at first; however, over 50% of patients develop erlotinib resistance within a year post treatment. Development of resistance remains to be the major challenge in treatment of NSCLC using EGFR-TKIs such as erlotinib.
In approximately 60% of cases, acquired erlotinib resistance in patients is attributed to a secondary mutation in EGFR, whereas in about 20% of cases, activation of alternative signaling pathways is the reported mechanism. For the remaining 15-20% of cases the mechanism of resistance remains unknown. Therefore, it can be speculated that the common methods used to identify genetic mutations in tumors post erlotinib treatment, such as histologic analysis and genetic screening may fail to identify alterations in epigenetic mediators of erlotinib resistance, also including microRNAs (miRNAs). MiRNAs are short non-coding RNAs that post-transcriptionally negatively regulate their target transcripts. Hence, in this study two comprehensive screens were simultaneously conducted in erlotinib sensitive cells: 1) a genome-wide knock-out screen, conducted with the hypothesis that loss of function of certain genes drive erlotinib resistance, 2) a miRNA overexpression screen, conducted with the hypothesis that certain miRNAs drive the development of erlotinib resistance when overexpressed. The overreaching goal of the study was to identify novel drivers of erlotinib resistance such as microRNAs or other epigenetic factors in NSCLC.
The findings of this study led to the identification of a tumor suppressive protein and an epigenetic regulator, SUV420H2 (KMT5C) that has never been reported to be involved in erlotinib resistance. On the other hand, the miRNA overexpression screen identified five miRNAs that contribute to erlotinib resistance that were extensively analyzed using multiple bioinformatic tools. It was predicted that the miRNAs mediate erlotinib resistance via multiple pathways, owing to the ability of each miRNA to target multiple transcripts via partial complementarity. Importantly, a correlation between the two screens was identified clearly supporting the use of two simultaneous screens as a reliable technique to determine highly significant miRNA-target interactions. Overall, the findings from this study suggest that epigenetic factors, such as histone modifiers and miRNAs function as critical mediators of erlotinib resistance, possibly belonging to the 15-20% of NSCLC cases with unidentified mechanisms involved in erlotinib resistance.