Treatment of BRAF-mutant melanomas with MAP kinase pathway inhibitors is paradigmatic of the promise of precision cancer therapy but also highlights problems with drug resistance that limit patient benefit. We use live-cell imaging, single-cell analysis, and molecular profiling to show that exposure of tumor cells to RAF/MEK inhibitors elicits a heterogeneous response in which some cells die, some arrest, and the remainder adapt to drug. Drug-adapted cells up-regulate markers of the neural crest (e.g., NGFR), a melanocyte precursor, and grow slowly. This phenotype is transiently stable, reverting to the drug-naïve state within 9 days of drug withdrawal. Transcriptional profiling of cell lines and human tumors implicates a c-Jun/ECM/FAK/Src cascade in de-differentiation in about one-third of cell lines studied; drug-induced changes in c-Jun and NGFR levels are also observed in xenograft and human tumors. Drugs targeting the c-Jun/ECM/FAK/Src cascade as well as BET bromodomain inhibitors increase the maximum effect (Emax) of RAF/MEK kinase inhibitors by promoting cell killing. Thus, analysis of reversible drug resistance at a single-cell level identifies signaling pathways and inhibitory drugs missed by assays that focus on cell populations.
Keywords: BRAFV600E melanomas; RAF and MEK inhibitors; adaptive and reversible drug resistance; de‐differentiated NGFRHigh state.
© 2017 The Authors. Published under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license.