Afatinib (also known as BIBW 2992) has recently been approved in several countries for the treatment of a distinct type of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-mutated non-small cell lung cancer. This manuscript comprehensively reviews the preclinical data on afatinib, an irreversible inhibitor of the tyrosine kinase activity of members of the epidermal growth factor receptor family (ErbB) including EGFR, HER2 and ErbB4. Afatinib covalently binds to cysteine 797 of the EGFR and the corresponding cysteines 805 and 803 in HER2 and ErbB4, respectively. Such covalent binding irreversibly inhibits the tyrosine kinase activity of these receptors, resulting in reduced auto- and transphosphorylation within the ErbB dimers and inhibition of important steps in the signal transduction of all ErbB receptor family members. Afatinib inhibits cellular growth and induces apoptosis in a wide range of cells representative for non-small cell lung cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, head and neck squamous cell cancer and several other cancer types exhibiting abnormalities of the ErbB network. This translates into tumour shrinkage in a variety of in vivo rodent models of such cancers. Afatinib retains inhibitory effects on signal transduction and in vitro and in vivo cancer cell growth in tumours resistant to reversible EGFR inhibitors, such as those exhibiting the T790M mutations. Several combination treatments have been explored to prevent and/or overcome development of resistance to afatinib, the most promising being those with EGFR- or HER2-targeted antibodies, other tyrosine kinase inhibitors or inhibitors of downstream signalling molecules.
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