Achaete-scute homolog 1 (ASCL1) is a neuroendocrine transcription factor specifically expressed in 10-20% of lung adenocarcinomas (AD) with neuroendocrine (NE) differentiation (NED). ASCL1 functions as an upstream regulator of the RET oncogene in AD with high ASCL1 expression (A+AD). RET is a receptor tyrosine kinase with two main human isoforms; RET9 (short) and RET51 (long). We found that elevated expression of RET51 associated mRNA was highly predictive of poor survival in stage-1 A+AD (p=0.0057). Functional studies highlighted the role of RET in promoting invasive properties of A+AD cells. Further, A+AD cells demonstrated close to 10 fold more sensitivity to epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors, including gefitinib, than AD cells with low ASCL1 expression. Treatment with EGF robustly induced phosphorylation of RET at Tyr-905 in A+AD cells with wild type EGFR. This phosphorylation was blocked by gefitinib and by siRNA-EGFR. Immunoprecipitation experiments found EGFR in a complex with RET in the presence of EGF and suggested that RET51 was the predominant RET isoform in the complex. In the microarray datasets of stage-1 and all stages of A+AD, high levels of EGFR and RET RNA were significantly associated with poor overall survival (p < 0.01 in both analyses). These results implicate EGFR as a key regulator of RET activation in A+AD and suggest that EGFR inhibitors may be therapeutic in patients with A+AD tumors even in the absence of an EGFR or RET mutation.
- Lung cancer
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