Background: Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are small nanometre-sized vesicles that are circulating in blood. They are released by multiple cells, including tumour cells. We hypothesized that circulating EVs contain protein kinases that may be assessed as biomarkers during treatment with tyrosine kinase inhibitors.
Methods: EVs released by U87 glioma cells, H3255 and H1650 non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells were profiled by tandem mass spectrometry. Total AKT/protein kinase B and extracellular signal regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2) levels as well as their relative phosphorylation were measured by western blot in isogenic U87 cells with or without mutant epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFRvIII) and their corresponding EVs. To assess biomarker potential, plasma samples from 24 healthy volunteers and 42 patients with cancer were used.
Results: In total, 130 different protein kinases were found to be released in EVs including multiple drug targets, such as mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), AKT, ERK1/2, AXL and EGFR. Overexpression of EGFRvIII in U87 cells results in increased phosphorylation of EGFR, AKT and ERK1/2 in cells and EVs, whereas a decreased phosphorylation was noted upon treatment with the EGFR inhibitor erlotinib. EV samples derived from patients with cancer contained significantly more protein (p=0.0067) compared to healthy donors. Phosphorylation of AKT and ERK1/2 in plasma EVs from both healthy donors and patients with cancer was relatively low compared to levels in cancer cells. Preliminary analysis of total AKT and ERK1/2 levels in plasma EVs from patients with NSCLC before and after sorafenib/metformin treatment (n=12) shows a significant decrease in AKT levels among patients with a favourable treatment response (p<0.005).
Conclusion: Phosphorylation of protein kinases in EVs reflects their phosphorylation in tumour cells. Total AKT protein levels may allow monitoring of kinase inhibitor responses in patients with cancer.
Keywords: biomarker; cancer; kinase inhibitor; plasma; signalling.