Research ArticleCancer

mTORC1 Inhibition Is Required for Sensitivity to PI3K p110α Inhibitors in PIK3CA-Mutant Breast Cancer

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Science Translational Medicine  31 Jul 2013:
Vol. 5, Issue 196, pp. 196ra99
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3005747

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Caveat mTOR

In recent years, numerous new drugs have been developed to take advantage of specific molecular changes in cancer cells. Unfortunately, tumors are often a step ahead of the scientists, becoming resistant to these targeted drugs just when they seem to be working perfectly. Now, two groups of researchers have developed rational combination treatments that block resistance to targeted cancer drugs by inhibiting mTOR.

Elkabets and coauthors were working on breast cancer, where the PIK3CA gene is frequently mutated. Inhibitors of PI3K (the protein product of PIK3CA) are currently in clinical trials, but some of the cancers are resistant to these drugs. The authors have discovered that breast cancers resistant to the PI3K inhibitor BYL719 had persistently active mTOR signaling, both in cultured cell lines and in patient tumors. Adding an mTOR inhibitor to the treatment regimen could reverse the resistance and kill the tumor cells.

Corcoran et al. found a similar mTOR-dependent drug resistance mechanism to be active in melanoma as well. BRAF-mutant melanomas, the most common type, are frequently treated with RAF and MEK inhibitors, but only with mixed results, because melanomas quickly develop resistance to these drugs. Now, the authors have shown that drug-resistant melanomas also have persistent activation of mTOR, and adding an mTOR inhibitor to the treatment regimen can block drug resistance and kill the cancer cells.

In both studies, the activation of mTOR in drug-resistant tumors has been confirmed in human patients, but the combination treatments have only been tested in cells and in mouse models thus far. Thus, the next critical step would be to confirm that adding mTOR inhibition to treatment regimens for these cancers is effective in the clinical setting as well. Some mTOR inhibitors are already available for use in patients, so hopefully soon mTOR activation will not be something to beware of, but something to monitor and target with specific drugs.


Activating mutations of the PIK3CA gene occur frequently in breast cancer, and inhibitors that are specific for phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) p110α, such as BYL719, are being investigated in clinical trials. In a search for correlates of sensitivity to p110α inhibition among PIK3CA-mutant breast cancer cell lines, we observed that sensitivity to BYL719 (as assessed by cell proliferation) was associated with full inhibition of signaling through the TORC1 pathway. Conversely, cancer cells that were resistant to BYL719 had persistently active mTORC1 signaling, although Akt phosphorylation was inhibited. Similarly, in patients, pS6 (residues 240/4) expression (a marker of mTORC1 signaling) was associated with tumor response to BYL719, and mTORC1 was found to be reactivated in tumors from patients whose disease progressed after treatment. In PIK3CA-mutant cancer cell lines with persistent mTORC1 signaling despite PI3K p110α blockade (that is, resistance), the addition of the allosteric mTORC1 inhibitor RAD001 to the cells along with BYL719 resulted in reversal of resistance in vitro and in vivo. Finally, we found that growth factors such as insulin-like growth factor 1 and neuregulin 1 can activate mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) and mediate resistance to BYL719. Our findings suggest that simultaneous administration of mTORC1 inhibitors may enhance the clinical activity of p110α-targeted drugs and delay the appearance of resistance.

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