Therapeutic targeting of ASCT2, a glutamine transporter that plays a major role in glutamine uptake in cancer cells, is challenging because ASCT2 also has a biological role in normal tissues. In this study, we report our novel finding that ASCT2 is physically associated in a molecular complex with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is often overexpressed in human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Furthermore, we found that ASCT2 can be co-targeted by cetuximab, an EGFR antibody approved for treating metastatic HNSCC. We demonstrated that cetuximab downregulated ASCT2 in an EGFR expression-dependent manner via cetuximab-mediated EGFR endocytosis. Downregulation of ASCT2 by cetuximab led to decreased intracellular uptake of glutamine and subsequently a decreased glutathione level. Cetuximab thereby sensitized HNSCC cells to reactive oxygen species (ROS)-induced apoptosis and, importantly, it is independent of effective inhibition of EGFR downstream signaling by cetuximab. In contrast, knockdown of EGFR by siRNA or inhibition of EGFR kinase with gefitinib, an EGFR kinase inhibitor, failed to sensitize HNSCC cells to ROS-induced apoptosis. Our findings support a novel therapeutic strategy for EGFR-overexpressing and cetuximab-resistant cancers by combining cetuximab with an oxidative therapy.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research