Amplification and rearrangements of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene are frequently found in glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). The most common variant is EGFR variant III (EGFRvIII). Research suggests that EGFRvIII could be a marker for a cancer stem cell or tumor-initiating population. If amplification and rearrangement are early events in tumorigenesis, this implies that they should be preserved throughout the tumor. However, in primary GBM, EGFRvIII expression is focal and sporadic. Unexpectedly, we found EGFR amplification and rearrangement throughout the tumor, including regions with no EGFRvIII expression, suggesting that mechanisms exist to modulate EGFRvIII expression even in the presence of high gene amplification. To study this phenomenon, we characterized three GBM cell lines with endogenous EGFRvIII. EGFRvIII expression was heterogeneous, with both positive and negative populations maintaining the genetic alterations, akin to primary tumors. Furthermore, EGFRvIII defined a hierarchy where EGFRvIII-positive cells gave rise to additional positive and negative cells. Only cells that had recently lost EGFRvIII expression could re-express EGFRvIII, providing an important buffer for maintaining EGFRvIII-positive cell numbers. Epigenetic mechanisms had a role in maintaining heterogeneous EGFRvIII expression. Demethylation induced a 20-60% increase in the percentage of EGFRvIII-positive cells, indicating that some cells could re-express EGFRvIII. Surprisingly, inhibition of histone deacetylation resulted in a 50-80% reduction in EGFRvIII expression. Collectively, this data demonstrates that EGFR amplification and rearrangement are early events in tumorigenesis and EGFRvIII follows a model of hierarchical expression. Furthermore, EGFRvIII expression is restricted by epigenetic mechanisms, suggesting that drugs that modulate the epigenome might be used successfully in glioblastoma tumors.
View details for DOI 10.1038/onc.2012.280
View details for Web of Science ID 000319806700008
View details for PubMedID 22797070