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Schinke, Henrik; Shi, Enxian; Lin, Zhongyang; Quadt, Tanja; Kranz, Gisela; Zhou, Jiefu; Wang, Hongxia; Hess, Julia; Heuer, Steffen; Belka, Claus; Zitzelsberger, Horst; Schumacher, Udo; Genduso, Sandra; Riecken, Kristoffer; Gao, Yujing; Wu, Zhengquan; Reichel, Christoph A.; Walz, Christoph; Canis, Martin; Unger, Kristian; Baumeister, Philipp; Pan, Min; Gires, Olivier (2022): A transcriptomic map of EGFR-induced epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition identifies prognostic and therapeutic targets for head and neck cancer. Molecular Cancer, 21: 178. ISSN 1476-4598

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Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is both a driver oncogene and a therapeutic target in advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). However, response to EGFR treatment is inconsistent and lacks markers for treatment prediction. This study investigated EGFR-induced epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) as a central parameter in tumor progression and identified novel prognostic and therapeutic targets, and a candidate predictive marker for EGFR therapy response.
Transcriptomic profiles were analyzed by RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) following EGFR-mediated EMT in responsive human HNSCC cell lines. Exclusive genes were extracted via differentially expressed genes (DEGs) and a risk score was determined through forward feature selection and Cox regression models in HNSCC cohorts. Functional characterization of selected prognostic genes was conducted in 2D and 3D cellular models, and findings were validated by immunohistochemistry in primary HNSCC.
An EGFR-mediated EMT gene signature composed of n = 171 genes was identified in responsive cell lines and transferred to the TCGA-HNSCC cohort. A 5-gene risk score comprising DDIT4, FADD, ITGB4, NCEH1, and TIMP1 prognosticated overall survival (OS) in TCGA and was confirmed in independent HNSCC cohorts. The EGFR-mediated EMT signature was distinct from EMT hallmark and partial EMT (pEMT) meta-programs with a differing enrichment pattern in single malignant cells. Molecular characterization showed that ITGB4 was upregulated in primary tumors and metastases compared to normal mucosa and correlated with EGFR/MAPK activity in tumor bulk and single malignant cells. Preferential localization of ITGB4 together with its ligand laminin 5 at tumor-stroma interfaces correlated with increased tumor budding in primary HNSCC tissue sections. In vitro, ITGB4 knock-down reduced EGFR-mediated migration and invasion and ITGB4-antagonizing antibody ASC8 impaired 2D and 3D invasion. Furthermore, a logistic regression model defined ITGB4 as a predictive marker of progression-free survival in response to Cetuximab in recurrent metastatic HNSCC patients.
EGFR-mediated EMT conveyed through MAPK activation contributes to HNSCC progression upon induction of migration and invasion. A 5-gene risk score based on a novel EGFR-mediated EMT signature prognosticated survival of HNSCC patients and determined ITGB4 as potential therapeutic and predictive target in patients with strong EGFR-mediated EMT.

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