Synthetic lethal interaction of cetuximab with MEK1/2 inhibition in NRAS-mutant metastatic colorectal cancer

KRAS mutations are an established predictor of lack of response to EGFR-targeted therapies in patients with metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC). However, little is known about the role of the rarer NRAS mutations as a mechanism of primary resistance to the anti-EGFR monoclonal antibody cetuximab in wild-type KRAS mCRC. Using isogenic mCRC cells with a heterozygous knock-in of the NRAS activating mutation Q61K, we aimed to elucidate the mechanism(s) by which mutant NRAS blocks cetuximab from inhibiting mCRC growth. NRASQ61K/+ cells were refractory to cetuximab-induced growth inhibition. Pathway-oriented proteome profiling revealed that cetuximab-unresponsive ERK1/2 phosphorylation was the sole biomarker distinguishing cetuximab-refractory NRASQ61K/+ from cetuximab-sensitive NRAS+/+ cells. We therefore employed four representative MEK1/2 inhibitors (binimetinib, trametinib, selumetinib, and pimasertib) to evaluate the therapeutic value of MEK/ERK signaling in cetuximab-refractory NRAS mutation-induced mCRC. Co-treatment with an ineffective dose of cetuximab augmented, up to more than 1,300-fold, the cytotoxic effects of pimasertib against NRASQ61K/+ cells. Simultaneous combination of MEK1/2 inhibitors with cetuximab resulted in extremely high and dose-dependent synthetic lethal effects, which were executed, at least in part, by exacerbated apoptotic cell death. Dynamic monitoring of real-time cell growth rates confirmed that cetuximab synergistically sensitized NRASQ61K/+ cellsto MEK1/2 inhibition. Our discovery of a synthetic lethal interaction of cetuximab in combination with MEK1/2 inhibition for the NRAS mutant subgroup of mCRC underscores the importance of therapeutic intervention both in the MEK-ERK and EGFR pathways to achieve maximal therapeutic efficacy against NRAS-mutant mCRC tumors ​
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