Open Access Research article

Recombinant human erythropoietin promotes the acquisition of a malignant phenotype in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines in vitro

Eric Abhold2, Elham Rahimy2, Jessica Wang-Rodriguez1, Katherine J Blair2, Michael A Yu2, Kevin T Brumund2, Robert A Weisman2 and Weg M Ongkeko23*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pathology, University of California, San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, San Diego, CA, USA

2 Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA

3 University of California, San Diego, Biomedical Sciences Building Rm. 1202 Mail Code 0612 9500 Gilman Dr, La Jolla, CA92093-0612, USA

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:553  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-553

Published: 21 December 2011



Recent studies indicate an increase in tumor progression and recurrence in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) of cancer patients taking recombinant human erythropoietin (rhEpo) for anemia. This study was undertaken to investigate the potential role of rhEpo in invasion, proliferation, and cisplatin-induced cell death in HNSCC cell lines.


The following experiments were performed with two HNSCC cell lines, UMSCC-10B and UMSCC-22B. Presence of EpoR in both cell lines was determined by western blot and quantitative PCR. Colorimetric MTS assays and clonogenic assays were used to study the effect of rhEpo at pharmacologically relevant doses on cell proliferation. Matrigel invasion assays were performed in order to determine effects of exogenous rhEpo on invasive abilities. Clonogenic assays were also used to study potential cytoprotective effects of rhEpo against cisplatin. Immunoblotting was done to analyze the effect of rhEpo on Akt phosphorylation. Finally, MTS and TUNEL assays were performed to test our hypothesis that Akt activation by PI3K was involved in rhEpo-mediated cisplatin resistance.


HNSCC cell lines were shown to express Epo receptor (EpoR). RhEpo increased invasion 1.8-fold in UMSCC-10B and 2.6-fold in UMSCC-22B compared to control. RhEpo at 10 U/ml increased cell proliferation by 41% and 53% in UMSCC-10B and UMSCC-22B, respectively, and colony formation by 1.5-fold and 1.8-fold. UMSCC-10B treated with cisplatin and exposed to rhEpo at 1 and 10 U/ml resulted in a 1.7-fold and 3.0-fold increase in colony number compared to control, respectively. UMSCC-22B treated with cisplatin and rhEpo at 1 or 10 U/ml resulted in ~2.5-fold increase in colony number. A TUNEL assay demonstrated a 30.5% and 76.5% increase in survival in UMSCC-10B and UMSCC-22B cells, respectively, in cisplatin and rhEpo-treated cells compared to cisplatin alone. MTS assay showed similar cytoprotective effects. Western blot revealed increased phosphorylation of Akt upon exposure of HNSCC cell lines to rhEpo. MTS assay and TUNEL analyses implicate Akt as a likely contributor to regulation of rhEpo-mediated cytoprotection.


The results demonstrate that, in HNSCC cells expressing functional EpoR, rhEpo promotes invasion, cell proliferation, and induces resistance to cisplatin, which may contribute to tumor progression.