Background: Fibroblasts undergo a morphological transformation to a reactive phenotype in the tumor microenvironment characterized by the expression of proteins such as fibroblast activation protein (FAP), a post-prolyl endopeptidase with expression largely restricted to carcinoma-associated fibroblasts. Thapsigargin (TG) is a highly toxic natural plant product that triggers a rise in intracellular calcium levels and apoptosis. FAP is therefore a provocative target for the activation of prodrugs consisting of a FAP-specific peptide coupled to a potent cytotoxic analog of TG.
Methods: The efficacy of FAP-activated peptidyl-TG prodrugs was tested in vitro in cell proliferation assays and effects on intracellular calcium in human cancer cell lines. The effects of FAP-activated prodrugs on tumor growth and host toxicity were tested in Balb-C nude MCF-7 and LNCaP xenograft mice (n = 9-11 per group). P values were calculated using permutation tests based on 50 000 permutations. Mixed effects models were used to account for correlations among replicate measures. All statistical tests were two-sided.
Results: FAP-activated prodrugs killed human cancer cells at low nanomolar concentrations (MCF-7 cells: IC(50) = 3.5 nM). Amino acid-12ADT analogs from FAP-cleaved prodrugs, but not uncleaved prodrugs, produced a rapid rise in intracellular calcium within minutes of exposure. Immunohistochemical analysis of xenografts exposed to FAP-prodrugs documented stromal-selective cell death of fibroblasts, pericytes, and endothelial cells of sufficient magnitude to inhibit growth of MCF-7 and LNCaP xenografts with minimal systemic toxicity, whereas non-FAP cleavable prodrugs were inactive. MCF-7 and LNCaP xenografts treated with a FAP-activated prodrug had maximal treated-to-control tumor volume ratios of 0.36 (treated: mean = 0.206 mm(3), 95% CI = 0.068 to 0.344 mm(3); control: mean = 0.580 mm(3), 95% CI = 0.267 to 0.893 mm(3)) and 0.24 (treated: mean = 0.131 mm(3), 95% CI = 0.09 to 0.180 mm(3); control: mean = 0.543 mm(3), 95% CI = 0.173 to 0.913 mm(3)), respectively, on day 21 after therapy.
Conclusions: This study validates the proteolytic activity of FAP as a target for the activation of a systemically delivered cytotoxic prodrug and demonstrates that targeted killing of cells within the stromal compartment of the tumor microenvironment can produce a therapeutic response.