Synergistic antitumour activity of HDAC inhibitor SAHA and EGFR inhibitor gefitinib in head and neck cancer: a key role for ΔNp63α

Simona Citro, Alice Bellini, Claudia Miccolo, Lavinia Ghiani, Thomas E. Carey, Susanna Chiocca

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Background: Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) overexpression is associated with the development of head and neck cancer (HNC) and represents one of the main therapeutic targets for this disease. The use of EGFR inhibitors has limited efficacy due to their primary and acquired resistance, partially because of increased epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). The HDAC inhibitor SAHA has been shown to revert EMT in different tumours, including HNC. In this study, we investigated the cooperative role of SAHA and the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib in both HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNC cell lines. Methods: A panel of 12 HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNC cell lines were screened for cell viability upon treatment with SAHA, gefitinib and the combination of the two. Epithelial/mesenchymal marker expression, as well as activation of signalling pathway, were assessed upon SAHA treatment. ΔNp63α silencing with shRNA lentiviral particles was used to determine its role in cell proliferation, migration and TGFβ pathway activation. Results: We found that both SAHA and gefitinib have antitumour activity in both HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNC cell lines and that their combination has a synergistic effect in inhibiting cell growth. SAHA treatment reverts EMT and inhibits the expression of the transcription factor ΔNp63α. Suppression of ΔNp63α reduces EGFR protein levels and decreases cell proliferation and TGFβ-dependent migration in both HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNC cell lines. Conclusions: Our results, by giving a clear molecular mechanism at the basis of the antitumour activity of SAHA in HNC cell lines, provide a rationale for the clinical evaluation of SAHA in combination with gefitinib in both HPV-positive and HPV-negative HNC patients. Further knowledge is key to devising additional lines of combinatorial treatment strategies for this disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)658-667
Number of pages10
JournalBritish Journal of Cancer
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Mar 19 2019


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research

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