Synthetic agonists of Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9), a class of agents that induce specific immune response, exhibit antitumor activity and are currently being investigated in cancer patients. Intriguingly, their mechanisms of action on tumor growth and angiogenesis are still incompletely understood. We recently discovered that a synthetic agonist of TLR9, immune modulatory oligonucleoticle (IMO), acts by impairing epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling and potently synergizes with anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab in GEO human colon cancer xenografts, whereas it is ineffective in VEGF-overexpressing cetuximab-resistant GEO cetuximab-resistant (GEO-CR) tumors. VEGF is activated by EGFR, and its overexpression causes resistance to EGFR inhibitors. Therefore, we used IMO and the anti-VEGF antibody bevacizurnab as tools to study IMO's role on EGFR and angiogenesis and to explore its therapeutic potential in GEO, LS174T, and GEO-CR cancer xenografts. We found that IMO enhances the anti body-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC) activity of cetuximab, that bevacizurnab has no ADCC, and IMO is unable to enhance it. Nevertheless, the IMO-plus-bevacizumab combination synergistically inhibits the growth of GEO and LS174T as well as of GEO-CR tumors, preceded by inhibition of signaling protein expression, microvessel formation, and human, but not murine, VEGF secretion. Moreover, IMO inhibited the growth, adhesion, migration, and capillary formation of VEGF-stimulated endothelial cells. The antitumor activity was irrespective of the TLR9 expression on tumor cells. These studies demonstrate that synthetic agonists of TLR9 interfere with growth and angiogenesis also by EGFR-and ADCC-independent mechanisms affecting endothelial cell functions and provide a strong rationale to combine IMO with bevacizurnab and EGFR inhibitory drugs in colon cancer patients.
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