In this study, we investigated biochemical changes in signaling pathways of a cetuximab-resistant subline of DiFi colorectal cancer cells (DiFi5) that was developed by exposing the parental sensitive cells to subeffective doses of cetuximab over an extended period of time.
Compared with parental DiFi cells that express high levels of EGFR and in which cetuximab induces apoptosis, the cetuximab-resistant DiFi5 cells showed markedly lower protein levels of EGFR, an increased association of EGFR with Cbl, and an increased ubiquitination of EGFR. DiFi5 cells also had a markedly higher level of Src-Y416 phosphorylation both at baseline and on EGF stimulation.
Although EGFR levels were low, DiFi5 cells responded to EGF stimulation with robust phosphorylation of EGFR on Y845 and strong phosphorylation of Akt and extracellular signal-regulated kinase, comparable to those of parental cells.
Most importantly, inhibition of Src kinase activity with PP2 reversed the resistance of DiFi5 cells to cetuximab-induced apoptosis without affecting the levels of EGFR in the cells.
Our results indicate that colorectal cancer cells may develop acquired resistance to cetuximab via altering EGFR levels through promotion of EGFR ubiquitination and degradation and using Src kinase-mediated cell signaling to bypass their dependency on EGFR for cell growth and survival.