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Reversible and adaptive resistance to BRAF(V600E) inhibition in melanoma

Sun C et al.

Nature 508,118–122 (03 April 2014)

Editor's comments:
This is another paper focusing on BRAF resistance mechanism. It shows that BRAF inhibitors can cause a loss of melanocytic differentiation which is associated with increased EGFR and TGF-β signaling as it was predicted by the phenotype switching model (Hoek et al., Cancer Research 2008). Sox10 is a transcription factor essential for neural crest differentiation and controls melanocytic differentiation via MITF. As we are gathering more and more information about resistance mechanisms, we will be able to design therapeutic solutions hopefully.

Treatment of BRAF(V600E) mutant melanoma by small molecule drugs that target the BRAF or MEK kinases can be effective, but resistance develops invariably. In contrast, colon cancers that harbour the same BRAF(V600E) mutation are intrinsically resistant to BRAF inhibitors, due to feedback activation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Here we show that 6 out of 16 melanoma tumours analysed acquired EGFR expression after the development of resistance to BRAF or MEK inhibitors. Using a chromatin-regulator-focused short hairpin RNA (shRNA) library, we find that suppression of sex determining region Y-box 10 (SOX10) in melanoma causes activation of TGF-β signalling, thus leading to upregulation of EGFR and platelet-derived growth factor receptor-β (PDGFRB), which confer resistance to BRAF and MEK inhibitors. Expression of EGFR in melanoma or treatment with TGF-β results in a slow-growth phenotype with cells displaying hallmarks of oncogene-induced senescence. However, EGFR expression or exposure to TGF-β becomes beneficial for proliferation in the presence of BRAF or MEK inhibitors. In a heterogeneous population of melanoma cells having varying levels of SOX10 suppression, cells with low SOX10 and consequently high EGFR expression are rapidly enriched in the presence of drug, but this is reversed when the drug treatment is discontinued. We find evidence for SOX10 loss and/or activation of TGF-β signalling in 4 of the 6 EGFR-positive drug-resistant melanoma patient samples. Our findings provide a rationale for why some BRAF or MEK inhibitor-resistant melanoma patients may regain sensitivity to these drugs after a ‘drug holiday’ and identify patients with EGFR-positive melanoma as a group that may benefit from re-treatment after a drug holiday.