We previously reported that the EGFR-targeted inhibitor erlotinib induces G1 arrest of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) cell lines without inducing significant apoptosis. Large-scale genomic studies suggest that >50% of SCCHN cases have activation of PI3K pathways. This study investigated whether cotargeting of EGFR and PI3K has synergistic antitumor effects and apoptosis induction. We examined growth suppression, apoptosis, and signaling pathway modulation resulting from single and combined targeting of EGFR and PI3K with erlotinib and BKM120, respectively, in a panel of SCCHN cell lines and a xenograft model of SCCHN. In a panel of 12 cell lines, single targeting of EGFR with erlotinib or PI3K with BKM120 suppressed cellular growth without inducing significant apoptosis. Cotargeting of EGFR and PI3K synergistically inhibited SCCHN cell line and xenograft tumor growth, but induced variable apoptosis; some lines were highly sensitive, others were resistant. Mechanistic studies revealed that the combination inhibited both axes of the mTORC1 (S6 and 4EBP1) pathway in apoptosis-sensitive cell lines along with translational inhibition of Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, and Mcl-1, but failed to inhibit p-4EBP1, Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, and Mcl-1 in an apoptosis-resistant cell line. siRNA-mediated knockdown of eIF4E inhibited Bcl-2 and Mcl-1 and sensitized this cell line to apoptosis. Our results strongly suggest that cotargeting of EGFR and PI3K is synergistic and induces apoptosis of SCCHN cell lines by inhibiting both axes of the AKT–mTOR pathway and translational regulation of antiapoptotic Bcl-2 proteins. These findings may guide the development of clinical trials using this combination of agents. Mol Cancer Ther; 16(4); 729–38. ©2017 AACR.
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