Although the basal-like 1 (BL1) and BL2 subtypes of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) share similar genetic and biological characteristics, patients with BL2 type tumors have markedly poorer prognosis. In addition, despite the overexpression of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) characteristically observed in basal-like TNBC, EGFR inhibitors have performed poorly in clinical trials. In order to understand the mechanism of resistance to EGFR inhibition in these tumors, our laboratory utilized cell line models of BL2 (SUM-149 and SUM-229) and BL1 (MDA-MB-468; MM468) TNBC, all of which overexpress EGFR, are PTEN null and exhibit elevated AKT phosphorylation (p-AKT). Compared to MCF10A and MM-468 cells, AKT phosphorylation in the SUM-149 and SUM-229 cell lines was resistant to treatment with the EGFR inhibitor gefitinib, as well as to the PI3K inhibitor BKM120 (BKM) and the mTOR inhibitor KU-0063794 (KU). Even treatment with the allosteric AKT inhibitor MK2206 (MK) only partially reduced p-AKT. RT-PCR and immunoblot analysis of AKT isoform expression showed that in SUM-149 and SUM-229 cells, AKT3 is expressed at higher levels than AKT1 or AKT2 at both the protein and message level. Because AKT3 has a higher IC50 for MK than AKT1 or AKT2, increasing doses of MK were used in an effort to abrogate AKT phosphorylation. The results showed that MK treatment at higher concentrations (5 μM) decreased p-AKT. In addition, shRNA-mediated knock-down of AKT3 sensitized the cells to inhibition of AKT by BKM, KU and MK. Interestingly, MK treatment alone had little effect on colony forming efficiency, even at higher doses, but when added in combination with gefitinib, MK dramatically reduced colony formation. We then investigated the effect of PTEN re-expression on signaling in these cell lines. PTEN re-expression alone had little effect on p-AKT in SUM-149 and SUM-229 cells, but resulted in a dramatic reduction in p-AKT in MM-468 cells. Although PTEN expression alone had little effect on p-AKT in SUM-149 and 229 cells, these cells exhibited decreased p-AKT following treatment with gefitinib and were sensitive to inhibition of AKT by MK. In addition, treatment of SUM-149/PTEN cells with gefitinib markedly reduced colony-forming efficiency. Our laboratory has previously demonstrated that in SUM-149 cells, a set of genes that are essential for survival, including PLK1, are uncoupled from regulation by EGFR. Thus, we examined the effect of AKT inhibition on expression of PLK1 and found that inhibition of AKT or re-expression of PTEN was able to recouple EGFR-mediated regulation of PLK1 expression. Our results demonstrate that PI-3 kinase and mTORC2 drive phosphorylation of AKT1 but not AKT3 in SUM-149 cells, which explains their relative resistance to these targeted drugs.

Citation Format: Christiana S. Kappler, Ericka L. Smith, Stephen Ethier. Regulation of epidermal growth factor receptor signaling in triple-negative breast cancer. [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research; 2016 Apr 16-20; New Orleans, LA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2016;76(14 Suppl):Abstract nr 4596.