Conference Abstract – MAP Kinase Pathway Alterations in BRAF-Mutant Melanoma Patients With Acquired Resistance to Combined RAF/MEK Inhibition

“Treatment of BRAF-mutant melanoma with combined dabrafenib and trametinib, which target RAF and the downstream MAP–ERK kinase (MEK)1 and MEK2 kinases, respectively, improves progression-free survival and response rates compared with dabrafenib monotherapy. Mechanisms of clinical resistance to combined RAF/MEK inhibition are unknown. This study represents an initial clinical genomic study of acquired resistance to combined RAF/MEK inhibition in BRAF-mutant melanoma, using WES and RNA-seq. The presence of diverse resistance mechanisms suggests that serial biopsies and genomic/molecular profiling at the time of resistance may ultimately improve the care of patients with resistant BRAF-mutant melanoma by specifying tailored targeted combinations to overcome specific resistance mechanisms.”

Editor’s note: We previously covered the benefits of a dabrafenib/trametinib combo for advanced-stage melanoma. However, some patients’ tumors become resistant to this drug combination and new treatment routes need to be considered. This study is exploring how molecular testing of specific genetic mutations in patients’ tumors might be used to help guide treatment decisions after they become resistant to the dabrafenib/trametinib combo.

Resistance to BRAF Inhibitors Is More Complicated Than Thought

Two new studies show that several different genetic mutations can make melanoma tumors resist drugs known as BRAF inhibitors, complicating treatment. These mutations are in genes that are part of the ‘MAPK pathway.’ The first study was on BRAF-inhibitor resistant melanomas from 45 people. In about half of the tumors, one of a set of three genes (MEK1, MEK2, MITF) was abnormal, and in three of the tumors more than one was abnormal.

The second study compared melanomas before and after resistance to combination treatment with both BRAF and MEK inhibitors. Tumors from three of the five people in the study developed genetic abnormalities that were not seen before treatment. On a positive note, when cells from resistant melanomas with both BRAF and MEK mutations were grown in the laboratory, they responded to a drug that inhibits a related protein called ERK.

The mutations in this study were all found in genes that code for proteins in the MAPK pathway, a particular group of proteins in a cell that work together to control cell multiplication that can lead to tumor growth. Knowing exactly which mutations a melanoma has will help doctors target it with the right combination of treatments.

A Melanocyte Lineage Program Confers Resistance to MAP Kinase Pathway Inhibition

“Malignant melanomas harbouring point mutations (Val600Glu) in the serine/threonine-protein kinase BRAF (BRAF(V600E)) depend on RAF–MEK–ERK signalling for tumour cell growth1. RAF and MEK inhibitors show remarkable clinical efficacy in BRAF(V600E) melanoma23; however, resistance to these agents remains a formidable challenge24. Global characterization of resistance mechanisms may inform the development of more effective therapeutic combinations. Here we carried out systematic gain-of-function resistance studies by expressing more than 15,500 genes individually in a BRAF(V600E) melanoma cell line treated with RAF, MEK, ERK or combined RAF–MEK inhibitors. These studies revealed a cyclic-AMP-dependent melanocytic signalling network not previously associated with drug resistance, including G-protein-coupled receptors, adenyl cyclase, protein kinase A and cAMP response element binding protein (CREB). Preliminary analysis of biopsies from BRAF(V600E) melanoma patients revealed that phosphorylated (active) CREB was suppressed by RAF–MEK inhibition but restored in relapsing tumours. Expression of transcription factors activated downstream of MAP kinase and cAMP pathways also conferred resistance, including c-FOSNR4A1NR4A2 and MITF. Combined treatment with MAPK-pathway and histone-deacetylase inhibitors suppressed MITF expression and cAMP-mediated resistance. Collectively, these data suggest that oncogenic dysregulation of a melanocyte lineage dependency can cause resistance to RAF–MEK–ERK inhibition, which may be overcome by combining signalling- and chromatin-directed therapeutics.”

In Vivo MAPK Reporting Reveals the Heterogeneity in Tumoral Selection of Resistance to RAF Inhibitors

“Activation of the ERK1/2 mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) confers resistance to the RAF inhibitors vemurafenib and dabrafenib in mutant BRAF-driven melanomas. Methods to understand how resistance develops are important to optimize the clinical utility of RAF inhibitors in patients. Here we report the development of a novel ERK1/2 reporter system that provides a non-invasive, quantitative and temporal analysis of RAF inhibitor efficacy in vivo. Use of this system revealed heterogeneity in the level of ERK1/2 reactivation associated with acquired resistance to RAF inhibition. We identified several distinct novel and known molecular changes in resistant tumors emerging from treatment-naïve cell populations including BRAF V600E variants and HRAS mutation, both of which were required and sufficient for ERK1/2 reactivation and drug resistance. Our work offers an advance in understanding RAF inhibitor resistance and the heterogeneity in resistance mechanisms, which emerge from a malignant cell population.”

Phosphorylation of BRAF by AMPK Impairs BRAF-KSR1 Association and Cell Proliferation

“BRAF is an oncogenic protein kinase that drives cell growth and proliferation through the MEK-ERK signaling pathway. BRAF inhibitors have demonstrated antitumor efficacy in melanoma therapy but have also been found to be associated with the development of cutaneous squamous cell carcinomas (cSCCs) in certain patients. Here, we report that BRAF is phosphorylated at Ser729 by AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a critical energy sensor. This phosphorylation promotes the association of BRAF with 14-3-3 proteins and disrupts its interaction with the KSR1 scaffolding protein, leading to attenuation of the MEK-ERK signaling. We also show that phosphorylation of BRAF by AMPK impairs keratinocyte cell proliferation and cell-cycle progression. Furthermore, AMPK activation attenuates BRAF inhibitor-induced ERK hyperactivation in keratinocytes and epidermal hyperplasia in mouse skin. Our findings reveal a mechanism for regulating BRAF signaling in response to energy stress and suggest a strategy for preventing the development of cSCCs associated with BRAF-targeted therapy.”

Adrenomedullin Blockade Suppresses Growth of Human Hormone Independent Prostate Tumor Xenograft in Mice

“Purpose: To study the role of Adrenomedullin (AM) system (AM and its receptors ‘AMR; CLR, RAMP2 and RAMP3’) in cancer of prostate (CaP) androgen-independent growth. Experimental design: Androgen-dependent and independent CaP models were used to investigate the role and mechanisms of AM in CaP hormone-independent growth and tumor-associated angiogenesis and lymphangiogenesis. Results: AM and AMR were immunohistochemically localized in the carcinomatous epithelial compartment of CaP specimens of high-grade (Gleason score >7) suggesting a role of the AM system in the CaP growth. We used the androgen-independent Du145 cells for which we demonstrate that AM stimulated cell proliferation in vitro through the cAMP/CRAF/MEK/ERK pathway. The proliferation of Du145 and PC3 cells is decreased by anti-AM antibody (αAM) supporting that AM may function as a potent autocrine/paracrine growth factor for CaP androgen-independent cells. In vivo, αAM therapy inhibits Du145 androgen-independent xenografts growth and interestingly LNCaP androgen-dependent xenografts growth only in castrated animals suggesting strongly that AM might play an important role in tumor regrowth following androgen ablation. Histological examination of αAM-treated tumors showed evidence of disruption of tumor vascularity, with depletion of vascular as well as lymphatic endothelial cells and pericytes, and increased lymphatic endothelial cell apoptosis. Importantly, αAM potently blocks tumor-associated lymphangiogenesis, but does not affect established vasculature and lymphatic vessels in normal adult mice. Conclusion: We conclude that expression of AM upon androgen ablation in CaP plays an important role in hormone-independent tumor growth and in neovascularization by supplying/amplifying signals essential for pathological neoangiogenesis and lymphangiogenesis.”

The Intersection of Immune-Directed and Molecularly Targeted Therapy in Advanced Melanoma: Where We Have Been, Are, and Will Be

“In three years, four drugs have gained regulatory approval for the treatment of metastatic and unresectable melanoma, with at least seven other drugs having recently completed, currently in, or soon to be in phase III clinical testing. This amazing achievement has been made following a remarkable increase of knowledge in molecular biology and immunology that led to the identification of high-valued therapeutic targets and the clinical development of agents that effectively engage and inhibit these targets. The discovery of either effective molecularly targeted therapies or immunotherapies would have led to dramatic improvements to the standard-of-care treatment of melanoma. However, through parallel efforts that have showcased the efficacy of small-molecule BRAF and MAP–ERK kinase (MEK) inhibitors, as well as the immune checkpoint inhibitors, namely ipilimumab and the anti-PD1/PDL1 antibodies (lambrolizumab, nivolumab, MPDL3280), an opportunity exists to transform the treatment of melanoma specifically and cancer generally by exploring rational combinations of molecularly targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and molecular targeted therapies with immunotherapies. This overview presents the historical context to this therapeutic revolution, reviews the benefits and limitations of current therapies, and provides a look ahead at where the field is headed.”

A Switch in the Expression of Embryonic EMT-Inducers Drives the Development of Malignant Melanoma

“Aberrant expression of embryonic epithelial-mesenchymal transition-inducing transcription factors (EMT-TFs) in epithelial cells triggers EMT, neoplastic transformation, stemness, and metastatic dissemination. We found that regulation and functions of EMT-TFs are different in malignant melanoma. SNAIL2 and ZEB2 transcription factors are expressed in normal melanocytes and behave as tumor-suppressor proteins by activating an MITF-dependent melanocyte differentiation program. In response to NRAS/BRAF activation, EMT-TF network undergoes a profound reorganization in favor of TWIST1 and ZEB1. This reversible switch cooperates with BRAF in promoting dedifferentiation and neoplastic transformation of melanocytes. We detected EMT-TF reprogramming in late-stage melanoma in association with enhanced phospho-ERK levels. This switch results in E-cadherin loss, enhanced invasion, and constitutes an independent factor of poor prognosis in melanoma patients.”

Bypass Mechanisms of Resistance to Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Inhibition in Lung Cancer

“Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are activated by somatic genetic alterations in a subset of cancers, and such cancers are often sensitive to specific inhibitors of the activated kinase. Two well-established examples of this paradigm include lung cancers with either EGFR mutations or ALK translocations. In these cancers, inhibition of the corresponding RTK leads to suppression of key downstream signaling pathways, such as the PI3K (phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase)/AKT and MEK (mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase)/ERK (extracellular signal–regulated kinase) pathways, resulting in cell growth arrest and death. Despite the initial clinical efficacy of ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) and EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) inhibitors in these cancers, resistance invariably develops, typically within 1 to 2 years. Over the past several years, multiple molecular mechanisms of resistance have been identified, and some common themes have emerged. One is the development of resistance mutations in the drug target that prevent the drug from effectively inhibiting the respective RTK. A second is activation of alternative RTKs that maintain the signaling of key downstream pathways despite sustained inhibition of the original drug target. Indeed, several different RTKs have been implicated in promoting resistance to EGFR and ALK inhibitors in both laboratory studies and patient samples. In this mini-review, we summarize the concepts underlying RTK-mediated resistance, the specific examples known to date, and the challenges of applying this knowledge to develop improved therapeutic strategies to prevent or overcome resistance.”