The role of epithelial to mesenchymal transition in resistance to epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors in non-small cell lung cancer

Kristine Raaby Jakobsen, Christina Demuth, Boe Sandahl Sorensen, Anders Lade Nielsen

Abstract

Inhibition of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is an important strategy when treating non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. However, intrinsic resistance or development of resistance during the course of treatment constitutes a major challenge. The knowledge on EGFR-directed tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) and their biological effect keeps increasing. Within the group of patients with EGFR mutations some benefit to a much higher degree than others, and for patients lacking EGFR mutations a subset experience an effect. Up to 70% of patients with EGFR mutations and 10–20% of patients without EGFR mutations initially respond to the EGFR-TKI erlotinib, but there is a severe absence of good prognostic markers. Despite initial effect, all patients acquire resistance to EGFR-TKIs. Multiple mechanisms have implications in resistance development, but much is still to be explored. Epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a transcriptionally regulated phenotypic shift rendering cells more invasive and migratory. Within the EMT process lays a need for external or internal stimuli to give rise to changes in central signaling pathways. Expression of mesenchymal markers correlates to a bad prognosis and an inferior response to EGFR-TKIs in NSCLC due to the contribution to a resistant phenotype. A deeper understanding of the role of EMT in NSCLC and especially in EGFR-TKI resistance-development constitute one opportunity to improve the benefit of TKI treatment for the individual patient. Many scientific studies have linked the EMT process to EGFR-TKI resistance in NSCLC and our aim is to review the role of EMT in both intrinsic and acquired resistance to EGFR-TKIs.