Growth factors and their transmembrane receptor tyrosine kinases play important roles in cell proliferation, survival, migration and differentiation. One group of growth factors, comprising epidermal growth factor (EGF)-like proteins and neuregulins, stimulates cells to divide by activating members of the EGF receptor (EGFR) family, which consists of the EGFR itself and the receptors known as HER2-4. This highly conserved signalling module plays a fundamental role in the morphogenesis of a diverse spectrum of organisms, ranging from humans to nematodes, and has also been implicated in the development and growth of many types of human tumour cells. In humans, more than 30 ligands and the EGFR family of four receptors lie at the head of a complex, multi-layered signal-transduction network. Different activated receptor-ligand complexes vary in both the strength and type of cellular responses that they induce. Analysis of the multiple processes that modulate EGFR signal transduction, such as receptor heterodimerisation and endocytosis, has revealed new therapeutic opportunities and elucidated mechanisms contributing to the efficacy of existing anticancer treatments.
The epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor belongs to the ErbB family of receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK). These trans-membrane proteins are activated following binding with peptide growth factors of the EGF-family of proteins. Evidence suggests that the EGFR is involved in the pathogenesis and progression of different carcinoma types. The EGFR and EGF-like peptides are often over-expressed in human carcinomas, and in vivo and in vitro studies have shown that these proteins are able to induce cell transformation. Amplification of the EGFR gene and mutations of the EGFR tyrosine kinase domain have been recently demonstrated to occur in carcinoma patients. Interestingly, both these genetic alterations of the EGFR are correlated with high probability to respond to anti-EGFR agents. However, ErbB proteins and their ligands form a complex system in which the interactions occurring between receptors and ligands affect the type and the duration of the intracellular signals that derive from receptor activation. In fact, proteins of the ErbB family form either homo- or hetero-dimers following ligand binding, each dimer showing different affinity for ligands and different signaling properties. In this regard, evidence suggests that cooperation of multiple ErbB receptors and cognate ligands is necessary to induce cell transformation. In particular, the growth and the survival of carcinoma cells appear to be sustained by a network of receptors/ligands of the ErbB family. This phenomenon is also important for therapeutic approaches, since the response to anti-EGFR agents might depend on the total level of expression of ErbB receptors and ligands in tumor cells.
Human carcinomas frequently express high levels of receptors in the EGF receptor family, and overexpression of at least two of these receptors, the EGF receptor (EGFr) and closely related ErbB2, has been associated with a more aggressive clinical behavior. Further, transfection or activation of high levels of these two receptors in nonmalignant cell lines can lead to a transformed phenotype. For these reasons therapies directed at preventing the function of these receptors have the potential to be useful anti-cancer treatments.
In the last two decades monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) which block activation of the EGFr and ErbB2 have been developed. These MAbs have shown promising preclinical activity and 'chimeric' and 'humanized' MAbs have been produced in order to obviate the problem of host immune reactions. Clinical activity with these antibodies has been documented: trastuzumab, a humanized anti-ErbB2 MAb, is active and was recently approved in combination with paclitaxel for the therapy of patients with metastatic ErbB2-overexpressing breast cancer; IMC-C225, a chimeric anti-EGFr MAb, has shown impressive activity when combined with radiation therapy and reverses resistance to chemotherapy. In addition to antibodies, compounds that directly inhibit receptor tyrosine kinases have shown preclinical activity and early clinical activity has been reported. A series of phase III studies with these antibodies and direct tyrosine kinase inhibitors are ongoing or planned, and will further address the role of these active anti-receptor agents in the treatment of patients with cancer.