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Sci. Signal., 29 March 2011
Vol. 4, Issue 166, p. pe16
[DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.2001948]


Resistance to MEK Inhibitors: Should We Co-Target Upstream?

Poulikos I. Poulikakos1 and David B. Solit2,3*

1 Program in Molecular Pharmacology and Chemistry, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA.
2 Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA.
3 Department of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10065, USA.

Abstract: Aberrant activation of the ERK pathway is common in human tumors. This pathway consists of a three-tiered kinase module [comprising the kinases RAF, mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) kinase (MEK), and extracellular signal–regulated kinase (ERK)] that functions as a negative feedback amplifier to confer robustness and stabilization of pathway output. Because this pathway is frequently dysregulated in human cancers, intense efforts are under way to develop selective inhibitors of the ERK pathway as anticancer drugs. Although promising results have been reported in early trials for inhibitors of RAF or MEK, resistance invariably occurs. Amplification of the upstream oncogenic driver of ERK signaling has been identified as a mechanism for MEK inhibitor resistance in cells with mutant BRAF or KRAS. Increased abundance of the oncogenic driver (either KRAS or BRAF in the appropriate cellular context) in response to prolonged drug treatment results in increased flux through the ERK pathway and restoration of ERK activity above the threshold required for cell growth. For patients with BRAF mutant tumors, the results suggest that the addition of a RAF inhibitor to a MEK inhibitor may delay or overcome drug resistance. The data thus provide a mechanistic basis for ongoing trials testing concurrent treatment with RAF and MEK inhibitors.

* Corresponding author. Telephone, 646-888-2641; e-mail, solitd{at}

Citation: P. I. Poulikakos, D. B. Solit, Resistance to MEK Inhibitors: Should We Co-Target Upstream? Sci. Signal. 4, pe16 (2011).

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