Background: Although sunitinib malate has shown significant clinical effect on imatinib-resistant gastrointestinal stromal tumors, with acceptable tolerability and improved prognosis for the patients, the mechanism of resistance to the drug is still under investigation.
Methods: We analyzed findings in 8 patients (seven men and one woman, median age, 59 years) out of 17 patients with imatinib-resistant gastrointestinal stromal tumors who had been treated with sunitinib. Sunitinib was orally administered once a day at a starting dose of 37.5 mg/day, 50 mg/day, or 75 mg/day, with 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off.
Results: All imatinib- as well as sunitinib-resistant lesions showed viable tumor cells strongly re-expressing the KIT protein. Pre-imatinib samples had heterogeneous KIT mutations either in exon 9 (n = 1) or exon 11 (n = 7), and seven imatinib-resistant tumors carried a secondary mutation either in the ATP-binding domain or in the activation loop in the same allele as the primary mutation. Most patients with imatinib-resistant tumors carrying secondary mutations in the ATP-binding domain obtained clinical benefits from sunitinib, whereas some tumors with mutations in the activation loop showed resistance to the drug. A tumor with mutations in exon 11 and 13 of the KIT gene, and showing partial response to sunitinib, harbored a third mutation in the activation loop when sunitinib resistance was shown. All additional secondary and tertiary mutations were located on the same allele as the primary mutation (cis-mutation).
Conclusion: These findings indicate that an additional cis-mutation in the activation loop of the KIT gene could be a potential cause of sunitinib resistance in gastrointestinal stromal tumors.