Epidermal growth factor receptor inhibition strategies in oncology

    1. P M Harari
    1. University of Wisconsin Medical School, Department of Human Oncology, University of Wisconsin Medical School, 600 Highland Avenue K4/332, Madison, Wisconsin 53792, USA
    1. (Requests for offprints should be addressed to P M Harari; Email: harari{at}humonc.wisc.edu)


    Molecular targeting strategies for cancer therapy are distinct from conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy in their potential to provide increased tumor specificity. One particular molecular target of high promise in oncology is the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). The EGFR is overexpressed, dysregulated or mutated in many epithelial malignancies, and EGFR activation appears important in tumor growth and progression. Advances in signal transduction biology continue to sharpen our understanding regarding specific contributions of EGFR signaling networks to cancer behavior. Two predominant classes of EGFR inhibitors have been developed including monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that target the extracellular domain of EGFR, such as cetuximab (Erbitux), and small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) that target the receptor catalytic domain of EGFR, such as gefitinib (Iressa) and erlotinib (Tarceva).

    Mechanisms of action for EGFR inhibitors have been investigated in preclinical model systems. Safety, activity, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics have been assessed in clinical trials. The anti-EGFR mAbs and TKIs have partially overlapping toxicity profiles, but distinct routes of administration, serum half-lives and therefore dosing schedules. Both classes of agents show clear antitumor activity, and cetuximab and gefitinib have been recently FDA approved for colorectal and lung cancer indications respectively. However, the absence of survival benefit for EGFR TKIs in combination with chemotherapy in large-scale phase III lung cancer trials in 2003 underscores a major challenge in anti-EGFR oncology therapeutics; namely to identify those tumors and patients that will respond predictably to EGFR inhibitor approaches. Newly identified mutations in the EGFR catalytic domain that appear to confer sensitivity to EGFR TKIs promise to open new doors of investigation regarding response prediction. Advances will also require enhanced molecular understanding of the overall EGFR signaling network, and improved methods to gauge the dependence of individual tumors on EGFR signaling pathways for growth advantage. Results from newly reported phase III trials in 2004 now confirm a survival advantage for the use of EGFR inhibitors in combination with high-dose radiation in head and neck cancer, and in refractory lung cancer respectively. It appears likely that EGFR inhibitors (and other rationally designed molecular growth inhibitors) will play a meaningful role in cancer therapy in the years to come.

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