Cetuximab, an EGFR-blocking antibody, is currently approved for treatment of metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), but its response rate is limited. In addition to blocking EGFR-stimulated cell signaling, cetuximab can induce endocytosis of ASCT2, a glutamine transporter associated with EGFR in a complex, leading to glutathione biosynthesis inhibition and cellular sensitization to ROS. Pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase-1 (PDK1), a key mitochondrial enzyme overexpressed in cancer cells, redirects glucose metabolism from oxidative phosphorylation toward aerobic glycolysis. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that targeting PDK1 is a rational approach to synergize with cetuximab through ROS overproduction. We found that combination of PDK1 knockdown or inhibition by dichloroacetic acid (DCA) with ASCT2 knockdown or with cetuximab treatment induced ROS overproduction and apoptosis in HNSCC cells, and this effect was independent of effective inhibition of EGFR downstream pathways but could be lessened by N-acetyl cysteine, an anti-oxidative agent. In several cetuximab-resistant HNSCC xenograft models, DCA plus cetuximab induced marked tumor regression, whereas either agent alone failed to induce tumor regression. Our findings call for potentially novel clinical trials of combining cetuximab and DCA in patients with cetuximab-sensitive EGFR-overexpressing tumors and patients with cetuximab-resistant EGFR-overexpressing tumors.
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