Novel EGFR ectodomain mutations associated with ligand-independent activation and cetuximab resistance in head and neck cancer

Sindhu Nair, Hoa Q. Trummell, Rajani Rajbhandari, Nanda K. Thudi, Susan E. Nozell, Jason M. Warram, Christopher D. Willey, Eddy S. Yang, William J. Placzek, James A. Bonner, Markus Bredel

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15 Scopus citations


Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a pro-tumorigenic receptor tyrosine kinase that facilitates growth for cancer cells that overexpress the receptor. Monoclonal anti-EGFR antibody Cetuximab (CTX) provides significant clinical benefit in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Missense mutations in the ectodomain (ECD) of EGFR can be acquired under CTX treatment and mimic the effect of large deletions on spontaneous untethering and activation of the receptor. Little is known about the contribution of EGFR ECD mutations to EGFR activation and CTX resistance in HNSCC. We identified two concurrent non-synonymous missense mutations (G33S and N56K) mapping to domain I in or near the EGF binding pocket of the EGFR ECD in patient-derived HNSCC cells that were selected for CTX resistance through repeated exposure to the agent in an effort to mimic what may occur clinically. Structural modeling predicted that the G33S and N56K mutants would restrict adoption of a fully closed (tethered) and inactive EGFR conformation while not permitting association of EGFR with the EGF ligand or CTX. Binding studies confirmed that the mutant, untethered receptor displayed reduced affinity for both EGF and CTX but demonstrated sustained activation and presence at the cell surface with diminished internalization and sorting for endosomal degradation, leading to persistent downstream AKT signaling. Our results demonstrate that HNSCC cells can select for EGFR ECD mutations under CTX exposure that converge to trap the receptor in an open, ligand-independent, constitutively activated state. These mutants impede the receptor’s competence to bind CTX possibly explaining certain cases of CTX treatment-induced or de novo resistance to CTX.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0229077
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Nair et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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