Indexed on: 20 Aug '11Published on: 20 Aug '11Published in: Cancer research
The mechanisms by which inhibition of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) sensitizes non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells to ionizing radiation remain poorly understood. We set out to characterize the radiosensitizing effects of the tyrosine kinase inhibitor erlotinib and the monoclonal antibody cetuximab in NSCLC cells that contain wild-type p53. Unexpectedly, EGFR inhibition led to pronounced cellular senescence but not apoptosis of irradiated cells, both in vitro and in vivo. Senescence was completely dependent on wild-type p53 and associated with a reduction in cell number as well as impaired clonogenic radiation survival. Study of ten additional NSCLC cell lines revealed that senescence is a prominent mechanism of radiosensitization in 45% of cell lines and occurs not only in cells with wild-type p53 but also in cells with mutant p53, where it is associated with an induction of p16. Interestingly, senescence and radiosensitization were linked to an increase in residual radiation-induced DNA double-strand breaks irrespective of p53/p16 status. This effect of EGFR inhibition was at least partially mediated by disruption of the MEK-ERK pathway. Thus, our data indicate a common mechanism of radiosensitization by erlotinib or cetuximab across diverse genetic backgrounds. Our findings also suggest that assays that are able to capture the initial proliferative delay that is associated with senescence should be useful for screening large cell line panels to identify genomic biomarkers of EGFR inhibitor-mediated radiosensitization.