Inhibition of ERK1/2 in cancer-associated pancreatic stellate cells suppresses cancer-stromal interaction and metastasis

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2019 May 27;38(1):221. doi: 10.1186/s13046-019-1226-8.


Background: Extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs) have been related to multiple cancers, including breast cancer, hepatocellular cancer, lung cancer and colorectal cancer. ERK1/2 inhibitor can suppress growth of KRAS-mutant pancreatic tumors by targeting cancer cell. However, no studies have shown the expression of ERK1/2 on pancreatic stromal and its effect on pancreatic cancer-stromal interaction.

Methods: Immunohistochemistry and western blotting were performed to detect the expression of p-ERK1/2 in pancreatic tissues and cells. Cell viability assay was used to study IC50 of ERK inhibitor on pancreatic cancer cells (PCCs) and primary cancer-associated pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs). Transwell migration, invasion, cell viability assay, senescence β-galactosidase staining were performed to determine the effect of ERK inhibitor on PCCs and PSCs in vitro and in vivo. The expression of key factors involved in autophagy and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) process were evaluated by western blotting. The expression of key factors related to cell invasiveness and malignancy were confirmed by qRT-PCR. Co-transplantation of PCC Organoid and PSC using a splenic xenograft mouse model was used to evaluated combined treatment of ERK inhibitor and autophagy inhibitor.

Results: Immunohistochemical staining in pancreatic tumor samples and transgenetic mice detected p-ERK1/2 expression in both cancer cells and stromal cells. In pancreatic tissues, p-ERK1/2 was strongly expressed in cancer-associated PSCs compared with cancer cells and normal PSCs. PSCs were also significantly more sensitive to ERK1/2 inhibitor treatment. Inhibition of ERK1/2 suppressed EMT transition in HMPCCs, upregulated cellular senescence markers, activated autophagy in cancer-associated PSCs; and suppressed cancer-stromal interaction, which enhanced invasiveness and viability of cancer cells. We also found that chloroquine, an autophagy inhibitor, suppressed ERK inhibition-induced autophagy and promoted PSC cellular senescence, leading to significantly decreased cell proliferation. The combination of an ERK inhibitor and autophagy inhibitor suppressed liver metastasis in a splenic pancreatic cancer organoid xenograft mouse model.

Conclusions: These data indicate that inhibition of ERK1/2 in cancer-associated pancreatic stellate cells suppresses cancer-stromal interaction and metastasis.

Keywords: Cancer–stromal interaction; Cellular senescence; ERK1/2; Pancreatic cancer; Pancreatic stellate cell.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / metabolism
  • Cell Communication / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement / drug effects
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Chloroquine / administration & dosage
  • Chloroquine / pharmacology
  • Drug Synergism
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Indazoles / administration & dosage*
  • Indazoles / pharmacology
  • Mice
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 1 / metabolism*
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 3 / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Pancreatic Stellate Cells / metabolism
  • Pancreatic Stellate Cells / pathology
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Piperazines / administration & dosage*
  • Piperazines / pharmacology
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / administration & dosage*
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Stromal Cells / metabolism
  • Stromal Cells / pathology
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Indazoles
  • Piperazines
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • SCH772984
  • Chloroquine
  • MAPK1 protein, human
  • MAPK3 protein, human
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 1
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 3