Purpose: We previously demonstrated an association between decreased SMAD4 expression and cetuximab resistance in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). The purpose of this study was to further elucidate the clinical relevance of SMAD4 loss in HNSCC.Experimental Design: SMAD4 expression was assessed by IHC in 130 newly diagnosed and 43 patients with recurrent HNSCC. Correlative statistical analysis with clinicopathologic data was also performed. OncoFinder, a bioinformatics tool, was used to analyze molecular signaling in TCGA tumors with low or high SMAD4 mRNA levels. The role of SMAD4 was investigated by shRNA knockdown and gene reconstitution of HPV-negative HNSCC cell lines in vitro and in vivoResults: Our analysis revealed that SMAD4 loss was associated with an aggressive, HPV-negative, cetuximab-resistant phenotype. We found a signature of prosurvival and antiapoptotic pathways that were commonly dysregulated in SMAD4-low cases derived from TCGA-HNSCC dataset and an independent oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) cohort obtained from GEO. We show that SMAD4 depletion in an HNSCC cell line induces cetuximab resistance and results in worse survival in an orthotopic mouse model in vivo We implicate JNK and MAPK activation as mediators of cetuximab resistance and provide the foundation for the concomitant EGFR and JNK/MAPK inhibition as a potential strategy for overcoming cetuximab resistance in HNSCCs with SMAD4 loss.Conclusions: Our study demonstrates that loss of SMAD4 expression is a signature characterizing the cetuximab-resistant phenotype and suggests that SMAD4 expression may be a determinant of sensitivity/resistance to EGFR/MAPK or EGFR/JNK inhibition in HPV-negative HNSCC tumors. Clin Cancer Res; 23(17); 5162-75. ©2017 AACR.
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