Phenformin enhances the therapeutic benefit of BRAFV600E inhibition in melanoma
Proto-Oncogene Proteins B-raf
Biguanides, such as the diabetes therapeutics metformin and phenformin, have demonstrated antitumor activity both in vitro and in vivo. The energy-sensing AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is known to be a major cellular target of biguanides. Based on our discovery of cross-talk between the AMPK and v-Raf murine sarcoma viral oncogene homolog B1 (BRAF) signaling pathways, we investigated the antitumor effects of combining phenformin with a BRAF inhibitor PLX4720 on the proliferation of BRAF-mutated melanoma cells in vitro and on BRAF-driven tumor growth in vivo. Cotreatment of BRAF-mutated melanoma cell lines with phenformin and PLX4720 resulted in synergistic inhibition of cell viability, compared with the effects of the single agent alone. Moreover, treatment with phenformin significantly delayed the development of resistance to PLX4720 in cultured melanoma cells. Biochemical analyses showed that phenformin and PLX4720 exerted cooperative effects on inhibiting mTOR signaling and inducing apoptosis. Noticeably, phenformin selectively targeted subpopulations of cells expressing JARID1B, a marker for slow cycling melanoma cells, whereas PLX4720 selectively targeted JARID1B-negative cells. Finally, in contrast to their use as single agents, the combination of phenformin and PLX4720 induced tumor regression in both nude mice bearing melanoma xenografts and in a genetically engineered BRAF(V600E)/PTEN(null)-driven mouse model of melanoma. These results strongly suggest that significant therapeutic advantage may be achieved by combining AMPK activators such as phenformin with BRAF inhbitors for the treatment of melanoma.