Inverse correlation of STAT3 and MEK signaling mediates resistance to Ras pathway inhibition in pancreatic cancer

Nagaraj S. Nagathihalli, Jason A. Castellanos, Purushottam Lamichhane, Fanuel Messaggio, Chanjuan Shi, Xizi Dai, Priyamvada Rai, Xi Chen, Michael N. VanSaun, Nipun B. Merchant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Major contributors to therapeutic resistance in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) include Kras mutations, a dense desmoplastic stroma that prevents drug delivery to the tumor, and activation of redundant signaling pathways. We have previously identified a mechanistic rationale for targeting STAT3 signaling to overcome therapeutic resistance in PDAC. In this study, we investigate the molecular mechanisms underlying the heterogeneous response to STAT3 and RAS pathway inhibition in PDAC. Effects of JAK/STAT3 inhibition (STAT3i) or MEK inhibition (MEKi) were established in Ptf1acre/þ; LSL-KrasG12D/þ; and Tgfbr2flox/flox (PKT) mice and patient-derived xenografts (PDX). Amphiregulin (AREG) levels were determined in serum from human patients with PDAC, LSL-KrasG12D/þ; Trp53R172H/þ;Pdx1Cre/þ (KPC), and PKT mice. MEKi/STAT3i–treated tumors were analyzed for integrity of the pancreas and the presence of cancer stem cells (CSC). We observed an inverse correlation between ERK and STAT3 phosphorylation. MEKi resulted in an immediate activation of STAT3, whereas STAT3i resulted in TACE-induced, AREG-dependent activation of EGFR and ERK. Combined MEKi/STAT3i sustained blockade of ERK, EGFR, and STAT3 signaling, overcoming resistance to individual MEKi or STAT3i. This combined inhibition attenuated tumor growth in PDX and increased survival of PKT mice while reducing serum AREG levels. Furthermore, MEKi/STAT3i altered the PDAC tumor microenvironment by depleting tumor fibrosis, maintaining pancreatic integrity, and downregulating CD44þ and CD133þ CSCs. These results demonstrate that resistance to MEKi is mediated through activation of STAT3, whereas TACE-AREG-EGFR–dependent activation of RAS pathway signaling confers resistance to STAT3 inhibition. Combined MEKi/STAT3i overcomes these resistances and provides a novel therapeutic strategy to target the RAS and STAT3 pathway in PDAC. Significance: This report describes an inverse correlation between MEK and STAT3 signaling as key mechanisms of resistance in PDAC and shows that combined inhibition of MEK and STAT3 overcomes this resistance and provides an improved therapeutic strategy to target the RAS pathway in PDAC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6235-6246
Number of pages12
JournalCancer Research
Issue number21
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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