A mechanism for synergy with combined mTOR and PI3 kinase inhibitors

PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e26343. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026343. Epub 2011 Oct 19.


Dysregulation of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling has been found in many human cancers, particularly those with loss of the tumor suppressor PTEN. However, mTORC1 inhibitors such as temsirolimus have only modest activity when used alone and may induce acquired resistance by activating upstream mTORC2 and Akt. Other tumors that do not depend upon PI3K/Akt/mTOR signaling for survival are primarily resistant. This study tested the hypothesis that the limited clinical efficacy of temsirolimus is due to a compensatory increase in survival signaling pathways downstream of Akt as well as an incomplete block of 4E-BP1-controlled proliferative processes downstream of mTOR. We explored the addition of a PI3K inhibitor to temsirolimus and identified the mechanism of combinatorial synergy. Proliferation assays revealed that BEZ235 (dual PI3K/mTOR inhibitor) or ZSTK474 (pan PI3K inhibitor) combined with temsirolimus synergistically inhibited cell growth compared to cells treated with any of the agents alone. Co-treatment resulted in G0/G1 cell cycle arrest and up-regulation of p27. Cell death occurred through massive autophagy and subsequent apoptosis. While molecular profiling revealed that, in most cases, sensitivity to temsirolimus alone was most marked in cells with high basal phospho-Akt resulting from PTEN inactivation, combining a PI3K inhibitor with temsirolimus prevented compensatory Akt phosphorylation and synergistically enhanced cell death regardless of PTEN status. Another molecular correlate of synergy was the finding that temsirolimus treatment alone blocks downstream S6 kinase signaling, but not 4E-BP1. Adding BEZ235 completely abrogated 4E-BP1 phosphorylation. We conclude that the addition of a PI3K inhibitor overcomes cellular resistance to mTORC1 inhibitors regardless of PTEN status, and thus substantially expands the molecular phenotype of tumors likely to respond.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Blotting, Western
  • Cell Cycle
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Drug Synergism
  • Humans
  • Imidazoles / pharmacology*
  • PTEN Phosphohydrolase / metabolism
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism
  • Quinolines / pharmacology*
  • Sirolimus / analogs & derivatives
  • Sirolimus / pharmacology
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Triazines / pharmacology*


  • Imidazoles
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Quinolines
  • Triazines
  • ZSTK474
  • temsirolimus
  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt
  • PTEN Phosphohydrolase
  • PTEN protein, human
  • dactolisib
  • Sirolimus