Melanomas are characterized by activating "driver" mutations in BRAF, NRAS, KIT, GNAQ, and GNA11. Resultant mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway signaling makes some melanomas susceptible to BRAF (BRAF V600 mutations), MEK1/2 (BRAF V600, L597, fusions; NRAS mutations), or other kinase inhibitors (KIT), respectively. Among driver-negative ("pan-negative") patients, an unexplained heterogeneity of response to MEK1/2 inhibitors has been observed. Analysis of 16 pan-negative melanoma cell lines revealed that 8 (50%; termed Class I) are sensitive to the MEK1/2 inhibitor, trametinib, similar to BRAF V600E melanomas. A second set (termed Class II) display reduced trametinib sensitivity, paradoxical activation of MEK1/2 and basal activation of ERBBs 1, 2, and 3 (4 lines, 25%). In 3 of these lines, PI3K/AKT and MAPK pathway signaling is abrogated using the ERBB inhibitor, afatinib, and proliferation is even further reduced upon the addition of trametinib. A potential mechanism of ERBB activation in Class II melanomas is minimal expression of the ERK1/2 phosphatase, DUSP4, as ectopic restoration of DUSP4 attenuated ERBB signaling through potential modulation of the ERBB ligand, amphiregulin (AREG). Consistent with these data, immunohistochemical analysis of patient melanomas revealed a trend towards lower overall DUSP4 expression in pannegative versus BRAF- and NRAS-mutant tumors. This study is the first to demonstrate that differential ERBB activity in pan-negative melanoma may modulate sensitivity to clinically-available MEK1/2 inhibitors and provides rationale for the use of ERBB inhibitors, potentially in combination with MEK1/2 inhibitors, in subsets of this disease.
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