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Two-Pronged Approach Shows Promise against Drug-Resistant Cancers

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Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) report that they have discovered why some lung cancers become drug-resistant after initially responding to targeted therapies. In the process, they say they devised a new two-pronged approach that yields an effective treatment for these cancers in the laboratory and holds promise for the future of precision medicine.

Medicilon boasts nearly 300 tumor evaluation models. At the same time, we are empowering innovative therapies to comprehensively evaluate and study immuno-oncology. We have completed model establishment and efficacy evaluation of immuno-therapies such as CAR-T, TCR-T, CAR-NK, oncolytic virus, antibody (monoclonal antibody, double antibody, polyclonal antibody, etc.), siRNA, AAV.

The team’s study (“Aurora kinase A drives the evolution of resistance to third-generation EGFR inhibitors in lung cancer”) publish in Nature Medicine.

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“Although targeted therapies often elicit profound initial patient responses, these effects are transient due to residual disease leading to acquired resistance. How tumors transition between drug responsiveness, tolerance, and resistance remains unclear, especially in the absence of preexisting subclones. In epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-mutant lung adenocarcinoma cells, we demonstrate that residual disease and acquired resistance in response to EGFR inhibitors require Aurora kinase A (AURKA) activity. Nongenetic resistance through the activation of AURKA by its coactivator TPX2 emerges in response to chronic EGFR inhibition where it mitigates drug-induced apoptosis,” the investigators.

Medicilon boasts nearly 300 tumor evaluation models. At the same time, we are empowering innovative therapies to comprehensively evaluate and study immuno-oncology. We have completed model establishment and efficacy evaluation of immuno-therapies such as CAR-T, TCR-T, CAR-NK, oncolytic virus, antibody (monoclonal antibody, double antibody, polyclonal antibody, etc.), siRNA, AAV.

Tumor Animal Model Medicilon Has Established:

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The Lungs

“Aurora kinase inhibitors suppress this adaptive survival program, increasing the magnitude and duration of EGFR inhibitor response in preclinical models. Treatment-induced activation of AURKA is associated with resistance to EGFR inhibitors in vitroin vivo, and most individuals with EGFR-mutant lung adenocarcinoma. These findings delineate a molecular path whereby drug resistance emerges from drug-tolerant cells and unveils a synthetic lethal strategy for enhancing responses to EGFR inhibitors by suppressing AURKA-driven residual disease and acquired resistance.”

Usually, EGFR acts as the on/off switch in a complex molecular circuit that tells the cell when it is appropriate to grow and divide and when it’s not. Though the course generally knows when to shut itself off, the mutant forms of EGFR found in lung cancer are stuck in the on position. This leads to abnormal cell proliferation and transforms healthy tissue into cancer.

Though scientists have developed designer drugs that target mutant EGFR and activate the tumor’s self-destruct machinery, these curative effects rarely endure. Even after three successive generations of increasingly potent precision therapies targeting the mutant protein, the results are always the same: up to 18 months of remission followed by relapse, according to the scientists. And when the tumor returns, it’s drug-resistant and more aggressive.

“Precision medicine promises that it allows doctors to treat patients using drugs that target a patient’s unique form of cancer. But for all the hype, precision medicine often fails to live up to its potential. It’s an unfortunate clinical reality that needs to be solved,” said Sourav Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., UCSF associate professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences and senior author of the new study.

Dr. Bandyopadhyay says there’s a gap separating precision therapy’s promise and its efficacy because tumors are clever. They can rewire their internal circuitry and devise new strategies to promote their survival, even after initially succumbing to targeted therapy. Though researchers have shown that these drugs continue to inhibit EGFR activity after tumors become resistant, the self-rewiring means that cancer no longer relies on the mutant protein for survival. Dr. Bandyopadhyay wanted to know why.

To identify drivers of drug resistance, the researchers took multiple cancer cell lines with mutated EGFR. They treated them in the culture dish with either imatinib or rociletinib, third-generation drugs that target the mutant protein. Osimertinib is FDA-approved for the treatment of EGFR-mutated non-small cell lung cancer. Though the cancer cells appeared to die off after the drugs were administered, they reemerged just six weeks later, resistant to both.

After the cancer cells stopped responding to EGFR drugs, the researchers tested 94 additional drugs to see if any could reverse the acquired resistance. They discovered that drugs targeting Aurora Kinase A, combined with osimertinib or rociletinib, killed the cancer cells once and for all.

Similar results were observed when the researchers transplanted drug-resistant tumors from lung cancer patients into live mice. However, the tumors continued to grow when the mice were treated with EGFR drugs alone; the two-pronged approach in which both proteins were targeted simultaneously caused the tumors to shrink with no observed toxicity to the mice.

“Aurora kinase was never before associated with drug resistance in cancer. It’s a fundamentally new pathway for resistance to emerge,” said Dr. Bandyopadhyay, a UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center member.

The researchers found that Aurora doesn’t drive tumor growth on its own. That’s why a treatment regimen targeting only Aurora failed to thwart cancer’s progress. They point out that Aurora provides a way for malignancies to escape death.

Osimertinib and rociletinib work by shutting off mutant EGFR. This slows cancer’s growth and triggers its self-destruct circuitry, causing tumors to wither away and die. That is until the tumor rewires itself and activates Aurora.

Acting independently of EGFR, Aurora silences the cell’s suicide circuits, regardless of what EGFR tells these circuits to do, thus ensuring cancer’s continued survival. By targeting Aurora and mutant EGFR in tandem, the researchers effectively sealed cancer's fate by filling shut its lone escape hatch.

The team discovered a new way to target drug-resistant tumors and also identified a biomarker that could tell clinicians whether the lung cancer they’re treating would be susceptible to combined therapies that target both EGFR and Aurora.

The researchers found elevated levels of the TPX2 protein in biopsies of advanced-stage, drug-resistant lung cancers taken from multiple patients. They believe that TPX2, known to activate Aurora kinase, may help clinicians identify when a patient’s tumor will succumb to combined targeted therapies.

The next step, Dr.Bandyopadhyay, is to get their two-pronged approach and the TPX2 biomarker approved for clinical trials.

“As more and more patients are progressing on third-generation EGFR inhibitors, our work delineates a new mechanism of resistance that appears to occur in the majority of patients and is targetable using existing Aurora kinase inhibitors,” he explained. “We hope this work re-invigorates pharma interest in cell cycle inhibitors such as Aurora kinase inhibitors. We believe this class of molecules has incredible power when combined with other targeted therapies, which is not how they have been tested historically. We hope our results catalyze new trials' initiation so that patients with mutant EGFR may reap the benefits of our combined approach.”

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