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Oncogene. 2016 Oct 6;35(40):5295-5303. doi: 10.1038/onc.2016.70. Epub 2016 Apr 4.

AMPK promotes tolerance to Ras pathway inhibition by activating autophagy.

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Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Department of Dermatology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA.
Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Targeted inhibitors of oncogenic Ras (rat sarcoma viral oncogene)-Raf signaling have shown great promise in the clinic, but resistance remains a major challenge: 30% of tumors with pathway mutations do not respond to targeted inhibitors, and of the 70% that do respond, all eventually develop resistance. Before cancer cells acquire resistance, they respond to initial drug treatment either by undergoing apoptosis ('addiction') or by surviving treatment albeit with reduced growth ('tolerance'). As these drug-tolerant cells serve as a reservoir from which resistant cells eventually emerge, inhibiting the pathways that confer tolerance could potentially delay or even prevent recurrence. Here, we show that melanomas and other cancers acquire tolerance to Ras-Raf pathway inhibitors by activating autophagy, which is mediated by the cellular energy sensor AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). Blocking this AMPK-mediated autophagy sensitizes drug-tolerant melanomas to Ras-Raf pathway inhibitors. Conversely, activating AMPK signaling and autophagy enables melanomas that would otherwise be addicted to the Ras-Raf pathway to instead tolerate pathway inhibition. These findings identify a key mechanism of tolerance to Ras-Raf pathway inhibitors and suggest that blocking either AMPK or autophagy in combination with these targeted inhibitors could increase tumor regression and decrease the likelihood of eventual recurrence.

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