ERK1/2 inhibitors: New weapons to inhibit the RAS-regulated RAF-MEK1/2-ERK1/2 pathway

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Abstract

The RAS-regulated RAF-MEK1/2-ERK1/2 signalling pathway is de-regulated in a variety of cancers due to mutations in receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs), negative regulators of RAS (such as NF1) and core pathway components themselves (RAS, BRAF, CRAF, MEK1 or MEK2). This has driven the development of a variety of pharmaceutical agents to inhibit RAF-MEK1/2-ERK1/2 signalling in cancer and both RAF and MEK inhibitors are now approved and used in the clinic. There is now much interest in targeting at the level of ERK1/2 for a variety of reasons. First, since the pathway is linear from RAF-to-MEK-to-ERK then ERK1/2 are validated as targets per se. Second, innate resistance to RAF or MEK inhibitors involves relief of negative feedback and pathway re-activation with all signalling going through ERK1/2, validating the use of ERK inhibitors with RAF or MEK inhibitors as an up-front combination. Third, long-term acquired resistance to RAF or MEK inhibitors involves a variety of mechanisms (KRAS or BRAF amplification, MEK mutation, etc.) which re-instate ERK activity, validating the use of ERK inhibitors to forestall acquired resistance to RAF or MEK inhibitors. The first potent highly selective ERK1/2 inhibitors have now been developed and are entering clinical trials. They have one of three discrete mechanisms of action – catalytic, “dual mechanism” or covalent – which could have profound consequences for how cells respond and adapt. In this review we describe the validation of ERK1/2 as anti-cancer drug targets, consider the mechanism of action of new ERK1/2 inhibitors and how this may impact on their efficacy, anticipate factors that will determine how tumour cells respond and adapt to ERK1/2 inhibitors and consider ERK1/2 inhibitor drug combinations.

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