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Targeting melanoma’s MCL1 bias unleashes the apoptotic potential of BRAF and ERK1/2 pathway inhibitors

Nature Communications
November 14, 2019

BRAF and MEK1/2 inhibitors are effective in melanoma but resistance inevitably develops. Despite increasing the abundance of pro-apoptotic BIM and BMF, ERK1/2 pathway inhibition is predominantly cytostatic, reflecting residual pro-survival BCL2 family activity. Here, we show that uniquely low BCL-XL expression in melanoma biases the pro-survival pool towards MCL1. Consequently, BRAF or MEK1/2 inhibitors are synthetic lethal with the MCL1 inhibitor AZD5991, driving profound tumour cell death that requires BAK/BAX, BIM and BMF, and inhibiting tumour growth in vivo. Combination of ERK1/2 pathway inhibitors with BCL2/BCL-w/BCL-XL inhibitors is stronger in CRC, correlating with a low MCL1:BCL-XL ratio; indeed the MCL1:BCL-XL ratio is predictive of ERK1/2 pathway inhibitor synergy with MCL1 or BCL2/BCL-w/BCL-XL inhibitors. Finally, AZD5991 delays acquired BRAFi/MEKi resistance and enhances the efficacy of an ERK1/2 inhibitor in a model of acquired BRAFi + MEKi resistance. Thus combining ERK1/2 pathway inhibitors with MCL1 antagonists in melanoma could improve therapeutic index and patient outcomes.