Diverse mechanisms activate the PI 3-kinase/mTOR pathway in melanomas: implications for the use of PI 3-kinase inhibitors to overcome resistance to inhibitors of BRAF and MEK

BMC Cancer. 2021 Feb 6;21(1):136. doi: 10.1186/s12885-021-07826-4.


Background: The PI 3-kinase (PI3K) pathway has been implicated as a target for melanoma therapy.

Methods: Given the high degree of genetic heterogeneity in melanoma, we sought to understand the breadth of variation in PI3K signalling in the large NZM panel of early passage cell lines developed from metastatic melanomas.

Results: We find the vast majority of lines show upregulation of this pathway, and this upregulation is achieved by a wide range of mechanisms. Expression of all class-IA PI3K isoforms was readily detected in these cell lines. A range of genetic changes in different components of the PI3K pathway was seen in different lines. Coding variants or amplification were identified in the PIK3CA gene, and amplification of the PK3CG gene was common. Deletions in the PIK3R1 and PIK3R2 regulatory subunits were also relatively common. Notably, no genetic variants were seen in the PIK3CD gene despite p110δ being expressed in many of the lines. Genetic variants were detected in a number of genes that encode phosphatases regulating the PI3K signalling, with reductions in copy number common in PTEN, INPP4B, INPP5J, PHLLP1 and PHLLP2 genes. While the pan-PI3K inhibitor ZSTK474 attenuated cell growth in all the lines tested, isoform-selective inhibition of p110α and p110δ inhibited cell growth in only a subset of the lines and the inhibition was only partial. This suggests that functional redundancy exists between PI3K isoforms. Furthermore, while ZSTK474 was initially effective in melanoma cells with induced resistance to vemurafenib, a subset of these cell lines concurrently developed partial resistance to PI3K inhibition. Importantly, mTOR-selective or mTOR/PI3K dual inhibitors effectively inhibited cell growth in all the lines, including those already resistant to BRAF inhibitors and ZSTK474.

Conclusions: Overall, this indicates a high degree of diversity in the way the PI3K pathway is activated in different melanoma cell lines and that mTOR is the most effective point for targeting the growth via the PI3K pathway across all of these cell lines.

Keywords: A66; BEZ-235; Drug resistance; IC 87114; KU-0063794; Melanoma; PI 3-kinase; PI3Kα; PI3Kδ; PIK3CA; PIK3CD; PIK3CG; VPS34; mTOR.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / genetics
  • Class Ia Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Humans
  • Isoenzymes
  • Melanoma / drug therapy
  • Melanoma / metabolism*
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase / genetics
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase / metabolism*
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / genetics
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins B-raf / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Skin Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Skin Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism*
  • Triazines / therapeutic use
  • Up-Regulation
  • Vemurafenib / therapeutic use


  • Isoenzymes
  • Phosphoinositide-3 Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Triazines
  • ZSTK474
  • Vemurafenib
  • PIK3R1 protein, human
  • PIK3R5 protein, human
  • phosphoinositol-3 kinase regulatory subunit 2, human
  • MTOR protein, human
  • Class I Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • Class Ia Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase
  • PIK3CA protein, human
  • PIK3CD protein, human
  • PIK3R3 protein, human
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins B-raf
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases