Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a heterogeneous disease that can currently be subdivided into four distinct consensus molecular subtypes (CMS) based on gene expression profiling. The CMS4 subtype is marked by high expression of mesenchymal genes and is associated with a worse overall prognosis compared to other CMSs. Importantly, this subtype responds poorly to the standard therapies currently used to treat CRC. We set out to explore what regulatory signalling networks underlie the CMS4 phenotype of cancer cells, specifically, by analysing which kinases were more highly expressed in this subtype compared to others. We found AKT3 to be expressed in the cancer cell epithelium of CRC specimens, patient derived xenograft (PDX) models and in (primary) cell cultures representing CMS4. Importantly, chemical inhibition or knockout of this gene hampers outgrowth of this subtype, as AKT3 controls expression of the cell cycle regulator p27KIP1. Furthermore, high AKT3 expression was associated with high expression of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) genes, and this observation could be expanded to cell lines representing other carcinoma types. More importantly, this association allowed for the identification of CRC patients with a high propensity to metastasise and an associated poor prognosis. High AKT3 expression in the tumour epithelial compartment may thus be used as a surrogate marker for EMT and may allow for a selection of CRC patients that could benefit from AKT3-targeted therapy.
Keywords: AKT3; CMS; growth; mesenchymal CRC.