Smith, M.P., Ferguson, J., Arozarena, Imanol, Hayward, R., Marais, R., Chapman, A., Hurlstone, A. and Wellbrock, C. (2013) Effect of SMURF2 targeting on susceptibility to MEK inhibitors in melanoma. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 105 ((1)). pp. 33-46. ISSN 1460-2105


The mitogen-activated protein-kinase pathway consisting of the kinases RAF, MEK, and ERK is central to cell proliferation and survival and is deregulated in more than 90% of melanomas. MEK inhibitors are currently trialled in the clinic, but despite efficient target inhibition, cytostatic rather than cytotoxic activity limits their efficacy.

We assessed the cytotoxicity to MEK inhibitors (PD184352 and selumetinib) in melanoma cells by toluidine-blue staining, caspase 3 cleavage, and melanoma-sphere growth. Western blotting and quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction were applied to determine SMAD-specific E3 ubiquitin protein ligase 2 (SMURF2), PAX3, and MITF expression. Human melanoma samples (n = 77) from various stages were analyzed for SMURF2 and PAX3 expression. RNA interference was performed to target SMURF2 during MEK inhibition in vivo in melanoma xenografts in mice and zebrafish. All statistical tests were two-sided.

Activation of transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) signalling sensitized melanoma cells to the cytotoxic effects of MEK inhibition. Melanoma cells resistant to the cytotoxic effects of MEK inhibitors counteracted TGF-β signalling through overexpression of the E3 ubiquitin ligase SMURF2, which resulted in increased expression of the transcription factors PAX3 and MITF. High MITF expression protected melanoma cells against MEK inhibitor cytotoxicity. Depleting SMURF2 reduced MITF expression and substantially lowered the threshold for MEK inhibitor-induced apoptosis. Moreover, SMURF2 depletion sensitized melanoma cells to the cytotoxic effects of selumetinib, leading to cell death at concentrations approximately 100-fold lower than the concentration required to induce cell death in SMURF2-expressing cells. Mice treated with selumetinib alone at a dosage of 10mg/kg body weight once daily produced no response, but in combination with SMURF2 depletion, selumetinib suppressed tumor growth by 97.9% (95% confidence interval = 38.65% to 155.50%, P = .005).

Targeting SMURF2 may be a novel therapeutic approach for increasing the antitumor efficacy of MEK inhibitors.

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