Metastasis reduces survival in oral cancer patients and pain is their greatest complaint. We have shown previously that oral cancer metastasis and pain are controlled by the endothelin axis, which is a pathway comprised of the endothelin A and B receptors (ETAR and ETBR). In this study we focus on individual genes of the pathway, demonstrating that the endothelin axis genes are methylated and dysregulated in cancer tissue. Based on these findings in patients, we hypothesize that ETAR and ETBR play dichotomous roles in oral carcinogenesis and pain, such that ETAR activation and silenced ETBR expression result in increased carcinogenesis and pain. We test a treatment strategy that targets the dichotomous functions of the two receptors by inhibiting ETAR with macitentan, an ETAR antagonist approved for treatment of pulmonary hypertension, and re-expressing the ETBR gene with adenovirus transduction, and determine the treatment effect on cancer invasion (i.e., metastasis), proliferation and pain in vitro and in vivo. We demonstrate that combination treatment of macitentan and ETBR gene therapy inhibits invasion, but not proliferation, in cell culture and in a mouse model of tongue cancer. Furthermore, the treatment combination produces an antinociceptive effect through inhibition of endothelin-1 mediated neuronal activation, revealing the analgesic potential of macitentan. Our treatment approach targets a pathway shown to be dysregulated in oral cancer patients, using gene therapy and repurposing an available drug to effectively treat both oral cancer metastasis and pain in a preclinical model.
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