Emergence of acquired resistance is virtually inevitable in patients with a mutation in the epidermal growth factor receptor gene (EGFR) treated with EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). Several novel TKIs that may prevent or overcome the resistance mechanisms are now under clinical development. However, it is unknown how tumor cells will respond to intensive treatment using these novel TKIs. We previously established HCC827EPR cells, which are T790M positive, through combined treatment with erlotinib and a MET-TKI from erlotinib-hypersensitive HCC827 cells. In this study, we treated HCC827EPR cells sequentially with an irreversible EGFR-TKI, CL-387,785, to establish resistant cells (HCC827CLR), and we analyzed the mechanisms responsible for resistance. In HCC827CLR cells, PTEN expression was downregulated and Akt phosphorylation persisted in the presence of CL-387,785. Akt inhibition restored CL-387,785 sensitivity. In addition, withdrawal of CL-387,785 reduced cell viability in HCC827CLR cells, indicating that these cells were "addicted" to CL-387,785. HCC827CLR cells overexpressed the EGFR, and inhibition of the EGFR or MEK-ERK was needed to maintain cell proliferation. Increased senescence was observed in HCC827CLR cells in the drug-free condition. Through long-term culture of HCC827CLR cells without CL-387,785, we established HCC827-CL-387,785-independent cells, which exhibited decreased EGFR expression and a mesenchymal phenotype. In conclusion, PTEN downregulation is a newly identified mechanism underlying the acquired resistance to irreversible EGFR-TKIs after acquisition of T790M against erlotinib. This series of experiments highlights the flexibility of cancer cells that have adapted to environmental stresses induced by intensive treatment with TKIs.
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