ERK at Work: Targeting the ERK Pathway in Cancer
Signal transduction networks are essential to normal cell growth and function, but signaling abnormalities, such as those caused by spontaneous mutations in signaling components, are the leading causes of tumor growth. The extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signaling pathway contributes to normal cell proliferation, differentiation, and survival, but components of the ERK pathway are upregulated in many tumor types, including those associated with melanoma, lung, colon and pancreatic cancer.
The critical role of the ERK pathway in cancer has resulted in the development of drugs and therapeutics that can inhibit overactivation of ERK signaling molecules or target aberrant signaling pathways upstream of ERK. The emergence of precision medicine-driven cancer treatments has advanced the ERK pathway inhibitor field. Breakthroughs in cancer genomics has enabled researchers to analyze tumor sequences derived from patient data and identify novel targets in the ERK pathway. This type of computational analysis coupled with large scale in vitro screening is essential to narrowing down which novel inhibitors are studied further during preclinical development.
The use of patient-derived xenograft (PDX) mouse models is critical to the discovery of next-generation ERK inhibitors. PDX models involve the use of mice that are engrafted with tumor tissue derived from patient samples. These mice typically have suppressed immune systems in order to tolerate tumor grafts and can be engineered to express other components of the human immune system, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors. PDX models that use tumors with mutations in ERK signaling, such as a colorectal tumor with a V600-mutated BRAF molecule, can be used in the preclinical screening of novel ERK pathway inhibitors. Novel inhibitors can be screened simultaneously in different PDX models, and the safety and efficacy of these molecules can also be assessed in combination with other therapeutics.
We are entering an era when cancer patients will have access to precision medicine treatments informed by the genetic analysis of their tumors, and the strategic deployment of new and improved ERK pathway inhibitors in patients with specific ERK mutations will improve treatment efficacy and overall survival. PDX models are essential to the development of these new ERK pathway inhibitors and many other novel immunotherapies.