Targeted therapeutic agents, such as inhibitors of epithelial growth factor receptor (EGFR), have transformed the management of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. MET-amplified NSCLC cells display resistance to EGFR-targeting agents, but are addicted to MET signaling for survival and proliferation and are sensitive to MET inhibition. However, responsive cancer cells invariably develop resistance to MET-targeted treatment. The tumor microenvironment plays a major role in resistance to anticancer therapy. We demonstrated that fibroblasts block the response of MET-amplified NSCLC cells to the MET kinase inhibitor, JNJ38877605 in an HGF-dependent manner. Thus, MET-amplified NSCLC cells become addicted to HGF upon pharmacological inhibition of MET. HGF restored phosphorylation of MET, EGFR and RON, and maintained pro-survival AKT and ERK signaling in MET-inhibited cells. We developed a small molecule inhibitor of pro-HGF activation, SRI31215, which acts as a triplex inhibitor of the pro-HGF activating proteases matriptase, hepsin and HGF activator (HGFA). SRI31215 blocked crosstalk between tumor cells and fibroblasts and overcame fibroblast-mediated resistance to MET inhibition by preventing fibroblast-mediated reactivation of AKT and ERK signaling. Structurally unrelated triplex inhibitors of matriptase, hepsin and HGFA that we developed in parallel showed similar biological activity. Our data suggest that simultaneous inhibition of HGF and MET is required to overcome resistance to MET inhibitors in MET-amplified NSCLC cells. This provides a rationale for the development of novel combination therapeutic strategies for the treatment of NSCLC patients with MET amplification.
Keywords: HGF; MET; NSCLC.