King's College London

Research portal

EGFR overexpression increases radiotherapy response in HPV-positive head and neck cancer through inhibition of DNA damage repair and HPV E6 downregulation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Elham Nafea Alsahafi, Selvam Thavaraj, Nazanin Sarvestani, Ofra Novoplansky, Moshe Elkabets, Bushra Ayaz, Mahvash Tavassoli, Main Figures Legends

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-97
Number of pages18
JournalCancer Letters
Early online date31 Oct 2020
Accepted/In press26 Oct 2020
E-pub ahead of print31 Oct 2020
Published1 Feb 2021

King's Authors


High-risk Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infections have recently emerged as an independent risk factor in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). There has been a marked increase in the incidence of HPV-induced HNSCC subtype, which demonstrates different genetics with better treatment outcome. Despite the favourable prognosis of HPV-HNSCC, the treatment modality, consisting of high dose radiotherapy (RT) in combination with chemotherapy (CT), remains similar to HPV-negative tumours, associated with toxic side effects. Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is overexpressed in over 80% of HNSCC and correlates with RT resistance. EGFR inhibitor Cetuximab is the only FDA approved targeted therapy for both HNSCC subtypes, however the response varies between HNSCC subtypes. In HPV-negative HNSCC, Cetuximab sensitises HNSCC to RT improving survival rates. To reduce adverse cytotoxicity of CT, Cetuximab has been approved for treatment de-escalation of HPV-positive HNSCC. The results of several recent clinical trials have concluded differing outcome to HPV-negative HNSCC. Here we investigated the role of EGFR in HPV-positive HNSCC response to RT. Remarkably, in HPV-positive HNSCC cell lines and in vivo tumour models, EGFR activation was strongly indicative of increased RT response. In response to RT, EGFR activation induced impairment of DNA damage repair and increased RT response. Furthermore, EGFR was found to downregulate HPV oncoproteinE6 expression and induced p53 activity in response to RT. Collectively, our data uncovers a novel role for EGFR in virally induced HNSCC and highlights the importance of using EGFR-targeted therapies in the context of the genetic makeup of cancer.

View graph of relations

© 2020 King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS | England | United Kingdom | Tel +44 (0)20 7836 5454