Introduction: Estrogen receptor-negative (ER-) breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease with limited therapeutic options. The molecular apocrine subtype constitutes 50% of ER-tumors and is characterized by overexpression of steroid response genes including androgen receptor (AR). We have recently identified a positive feedback loop between the AR and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signaling pathways in the molecular apocrine subtype. In this feedback loop, AR regulates ERK phosphorylation through the mediation of ErbB2 and, in turn, ERK-CREB1 signaling regulates the transcription of AR in molecular apocrine cells. In this study, we investigated the therapeutic implications of the AR-ERK feedback loop in molecular apocrine breast cancer.
Methods: We examined a synergy between the AR inhibitor flutamide and the MEK inhibitor CI-1040 in the molecular apocrine cell lines MDA-MB-453, HCC-1954 and HCC-202 using MTT cell viability and annexin V apoptosis assays. Synergy was measured using the combination index (CI) method. Furthermore, we examined in vivo synergy between flutamide and the MEK inhibitor PD0325901 in a xenograft model of the molecular apocrine subtype. The effects of in vivo therapies on tumor growth, cell proliferation and angiogenesis were assessed.
Results: We demonstrate synergistic CI values for combination therapy with flutamide and CI-1040 across three molecular apocrine cell lines at four dose combinations using both cell viability and apoptosis assays. Furthermore, we show in vivo that combination therapy with flutamide and MEK inhibitor PD0325901 has a significantly higher therapeutic efficacy in reducing tumor growth, cellular proliferation and angiogenesis than monotherapy with these agents. Moreover, our data suggested that flutamide and CI-1040 have synergy in trastuzumab resistance models of the molecular apocrine subtype. Notably, the therapeutic effect of combination therapy in trastuzumab-resistant cells was associated with the abrogation of an increased level of ERK phosphorylation that was developed in the process of trastuzumab resistance.
Conclusions: In this study, we demonstrate in vitro and in vivo synergies between AR and MEK inhibitors in molecular apocrine breast cancer. Furthermore, we show that combination therapy with these inhibitors can overcome trastuzumab resistance in molecular apocrine cells. Therefore, a combination therapy strategy with AR and MEK inhibitors may provide an attractive therapeutic option for the ER-/AR+ subtype of breast cancer.