Background: We sought to investigate the role of ErbB3-mediated signalling on the interaction between pancreatic cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAF) and carcinoma cells in an effort to disrupt tumourigenic pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) stromal-epithelial cross-communication.
Methods: Primary CAF cultures were established from human PDAC surgical specimens. AsPC-1 pancreatic cancer cell murine subcutaneous xenografts were developed in the presence and absence of CAF and were subsequently treated with epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors (erlotinib) and ErbB3 inhibitors (MM-121, monoclonal ErbB3 antibody).
Results: Cancer-associated fibroblasts were found to secrete neuregulin-1 (NRG-1), which promoted proliferation via phosphorylation of ErbB3 and AKT in AsPC-1 PDAC cells. This signalling cascade was effectively inhibited both in vitro and in vivo by specific ErbB3 blockade with MM-121, with greater degree of tumourigenesis inhibition when combined with erlotinib. The CAF-AsPC-1 pancreatic cancer xenografts reached significantly greater tumour volume than those xenografts lacking CAF and were resistant to the anti-tumour effects of EGFR inhibition with erlotinib.
Conclusion: Cancer-associated fibroblasts-derived NRG-1 promote PDAC tumourigenesis via ErbB3-AKT signalling and overcomes single-agent EGFR inhibition. Disruption of this stromally mediated tumourigenic mechanism is best obtained through combined EGFR-ErbB3 inhibition with both erlotinib and MM-121. We have identified the NRG-1/ErbB3 axis as an attractive molecular target for the interruption of tumourigenic stromal-epithelial interactions within the PDAC microenvironment.