Research ArticleCancer

Merlin Deficiency Predicts FAK Inhibitor Sensitivity: A Synthetic Lethal Relationship

Science Translational Medicine  21 May 2014:
Vol. 6, Issue 237, pp. 237ra68
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3008639

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The goal of targeted therapy is to match a selective drug with a genetic lesion that predicts for drug sensitivity. In a diverse panel of cancer cell lines, we found that the cells most sensitive to focal adhesion kinase (FAK) inhibition lack expression of the neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) tumor suppressor gene product, Merlin. Merlin expression is often lost in malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), an asbestos-induced aggressive cancer with limited treatment options. Our data demonstrate that low Merlin expression predicts for increased sensitivity of MPM cells to a FAK inhibitor, VS-4718, in vitro and in tumor xenograft models. Disruption of MPM cell-cell or cell–extracellular matrix (ECM) contacts with blocking antibodies suggests that weak cell-cell adhesions in Merlin-negative MPM cells underlie their greater dependence on cell-ECM–induced FAK signaling. This provides one explanation of why Merlin-negative cells are vulnerable to FAK inhibitor treatment. Furthermore, we validated aldehyde dehydrogenase as a marker of cancer stem cells (CSCs) in MPM, a cell population thought to mediate tumor relapse after chemotherapy. Whereas pemetrexed and cisplatin, standard-of-care agents for MPM, enrich for CSCs, FAK inhibitor treatment preferentially eliminates these cells. These preclinical results provide the rationale for a clinical trial in MPM patients using a FAK inhibitor as a single agent after first-line chemotherapy. With this design, the FAK inhibitor could potentially induce a more durable clinical response through reduction of CSCs along with a strong antitumor effect. Furthermore, our data suggest that patients with Merlin-negative tumors may especially benefit from FAK inhibitor treatment.

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