Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Response to gefitinib and erlotinib in Non-small cell lung cancer: a retrospective study

Ivette F Emery1*, Chiara Battelli12, Paul L Auclair3, Kathleen Carrier4 and Daniel M Hayes1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Translational Research, Maine Center for Cancer Medicine, Scarborough, Maine, USA

2 Department of Internal Medicine, Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine, USA

3 Department of Pathology, Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine, USA

4 Histology Core, Maine Medical Center Research Institute, Scarborough, Maine, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Cancer 2009, 9:333  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-9-333

Published: 18 September 2009



In Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), an overactive epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) pathway is a component of the malignant phenotype. Two tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) of EGFR, gefinitib and erlotinib, have been used with variable benefit.


We have analyzed outcome data of a population of NSCLC patients that received these TKIs to determine the benefit derived and to define the clinical and molecular parameters that correlate with response. Tumor tissue from a subgroup of these patients was analyzed by immunohistochemistry to measure the expression level of EGFR and four activated (phosphorylated) members of the pathway, pEGFR, pERK, pAKT, and pSTAT3.


Erlotinib was slightly superior to gefitinib in all measures of response, although the differences were not statistically significant. The most robust clinical predictors of time to progression (TTP) were best response and rash (p < 0.0001). A higher level of pEGFR was associated with longer TTP, while the total EGFR level was not associated with response. Higher levels of pAKT and pSTAT3 were also associated with longer TTP. In contrast, a higher level of pERK1/2 was associated with shorter TTP.


These observations suggest the hypothesis that tumor cells that have activated EGFR pathways, presumably being utilized for survival, are clinically relevant targets for pathway inhibition. An accurate molecular predictive model of TKI response should include activated members of the EGFR pathway. TKIs may be best reserved for tumors expressing pEGFR and pAKT or pSTAT, and little pERK. In the absence of molecular predictors of response, the appearance of a rash and a positive first scan are good clinical indicators of response.