Cetuximab is an epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-blocking antibody that is approved to treat several types of solid cancers in patients. We recently showed that cetuximab can induce autophagy in cancer cells by both inhibiting the class I phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PtdIns3K)/Akt/mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway and activating the class III PtdIns3K (hVps34)/beclin 1 pathway. In the current study, we investigated the relationship between cetuximab-induced autophagy and apoptosis and the biological roles of autophagy in cetuximab-mediated cancer therapy. We found that cetuximab induced autophagy in cancer cells that show strong or weak induction of apoptosis after cetuximab treatment but not in those that show only cytostatic growth inhibition. Inhibition of cetuximab-induced apoptosis by a caspase inhibitor prevented the induction of autophagy. Conversely, inhibition of cetuximab-induced autophagy by silencing the expression of autophagy-related genes (Atg) or treating the cancer cells with lysosomal inhibitors enhanced the cetuximab-induced apoptosis, suggesting that autophagy was a protective cellular response to cetuximab treatment. On the other hand, cotreatment of cancer cells with cetuximab and the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin resulted in an Atg-dependent and lysosomal inhibition-sensitive death of cancer cells that show only growth inhibition or weak apoptosis after cetuximab treatment, indicating that cell death may be achieved by activating the autophagy pathway in these cells. Together, our findings may guide the development of novel clinical strategies for sensitizing cancer cells to EGFR-targeted therapy
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