Intrinsic cross-resistance to inhibition of different signaling pathways may hamper development of combinatorial treatments in melanoma, but the relative frequency of this phenotype and the strategies to overcome this hurdle remain poorly understood. Among 49 BRAF-mutant melanoma cell lines from patients not previously treated with target therapy, 21 (42.9%) showed strong primary resistance (IC50 > 1 μM) to a BRAFV600E inhibitor. Most of the BRAF-inhibitor-resistant cell lines showed also strong or intermediate cross-resistance to MEK1/2- and to PI3K/mTOR-specific inhibitors. Primary cross-resistance was confirmed in an independent set of 23 BRAF-mutant short-term melanoma cell cultures. MEK1/2 and PI3K/mTOR co-targeting was the most effective approach, compared to BRAF and PI3K/mTOR dual blockade, to counteract primary resistance to BRAF inhibition and the cross-resistant phenotype. This was shown by extensive drug interaction analysis, tumor growth inhibition assays in-vivo, p-ERK and p-AKT inhibition, promotion of melanoma apoptosis, apoptosis-related protein modulation, activation of effector caspases and selective modulation of genes involved in melanoma drug resistance and belonging to the ERK/MAPK and PI3K/AKT canonical pathways. Compared to co-targeting of mutant BRAF and PI3K/mTOR, the association of a MEK1/2 and a PI3K/mTOR inhibitor was more effective in the activation of Bax and of caspase-3 and in the induction of caspase-dependent melanoma apoptosis. Furthermore Bax silencing reduced the latter effects. These results suggest that intrinsic resistance to BRAF inhibition is frequently associated with primary cross-resistance to MEK and PI3K/mTOR blockade in BRAF-mutant melanoma and provide pre-clinical evidence for a combinatorial approach to counteract this phenotype.
Keywords: BRAF; MEK; PI3K/mTOR; apoptosis; melanoma.