Public Release: 

New drug combinations may benefit patients with pancreatic cancer

American Association for Cancer Research

BOSTON -- Two drug combinations that simultaneously block two major signaling pathways downstream of the protein KRAS, which is aberrantly active in most pancreatic cancers, may provide a new treatment option for patients with this disease, according to preclinical results presented here at the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics, held Oct. 19-23.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of just 6 percent. Most pancreatic cancers harbor mutations in the KRAS gene. Because these mutations drive many of the cancerous characteristics of pancreatic cancer cells, the KRAS protein is a prime therapeutic target. However, efforts to develop clinically useful drugs that block KRAS activity have been unsuccessful.

"KRAS has been a daunting therapeutic target," said Barry Nelkin, Ph.D., professor of oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md. "By combining drugs that simultaneously block two of the major signaling pathways triggered by KRAS, we have found a way to indirectly target this challenging protein.

"Our preclinical results were so positive that we have initiated a phase I clinical trial to evaluate one of the drug combinations, dinaciclib plus MK2206, in patients with pancreatic cancer."

In prior studies, Nelkin and colleagues found that an investigational drug called dinaciclib had antitumor effects in mouse models of pancreatic cancer.

"Dinaciclib blocks the activity of a protein called CDK5, which is a key part of one of the signaling pathways that KRAS uses to exert its cancer-driving effects, the Ral pathway," explained Nelkin. "We wanted to investigate whether combining dinaciclib with a second drug that blocks one of the other signaling pathways triggered by KRAS would have even greater antitumor effects."

To conduct the study, Nelkin and colleagues used models of pancreatic cancer that closely resembled the human disease: They placed tiny pieces of human pancreatic tumors in the pancreata of mice and let them grow to about the size of a pea before beginning treatment.

The combination of dinaciclib and MK2206, which blocks the PI3K/AKT pathway triggered by KRAS, substantially inhibited tumor growth and reduced tumor spread to other parts of the body, a process called metastasis, compared with either drug alone. Further, when compared with no treatment, this drug combination reduced tumor growth by 90 percent, and in three of the 14 mice, no human pancreatic tumor tissue could be detected at the end of the experiment, indicating that there had been a complete response to the treatment.

The second drug combination tested--dinaciclib and SCH772984, which blocks the RAF/MEK/ERK pathway triggered by KRAS--also substantially inhibited tumor growth and reduced the number of metastases. It did not, however, lead to any complete responses.

The researchers are planning to investigate whether the drug combinations they used in this study can be further combined with current treatments for pancreatic cancer and if they can identify markers that might predict whether a given pancreatic tumor will respond to the drug combinations.


This study was funded by the National Cancer Institute. Nelkin declares that no conflicts of interest exist.

The 2013 International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics is being co-hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC).

This research will be presented at a press conference entitled "Overcoming Resistance and Hard-to-treat Cancers" during the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics on Monday, Oct. 21 at 9 a.m. ET in room 202 of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Mass. Reporters who cannot attend in person may call in using the following numbers:

  • U.S./Canada (toll-free): 800-446-2782
  • International (toll): 847-413-3235

To interview Barry Nelkin, contact Vanessa Wasta at or 410-736-1397. For other inquiries, contact Jeremy Moore at or 215-446-7109.

About the American Association for Cancer Research

Founded in 1907, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) is the world's oldest and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research and its mission to prevent and cure cancer. AACR membership includes more than 34,000 laboratory, translational, and clinical researchers; population scientists; other health care professionals; and cancer advocates residing in more than 90 countries. The AACR marshals the full spectrum of expertise of the cancer community to accelerate progress in the prevention, biology, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer by annually convening more than 20 conferences and educational workshops, the largest of which is the AACR Annual Meeting with more than 18,000 attendees. In addition, the AACR publishes eight peer-reviewed scientific journals and a magazine for cancer survivors, patients, and their caregivers. The AACR funds meritorious research directly as well as in cooperation with numerous cancer organizations. As the scientific partner of Stand Up To Cancer, the AACR provides expert peer review, grants administration, and scientific oversight of team science and individual grants in cancer research that have the potential for near-term patient benefit. The AACR actively communicates with legislators and policymakers about the value of cancer research and related biomedical science in saving lives from cancer. For more information about the AACR, visit Follow the AACR on Twitter: @AACR. Follow the AACR on Facebook:

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About the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer

The European Organisation for the Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) brings together European cancer clinical research experts from all disciplines for trans-national collaboration. Both multinational and multidisciplinary, the EORTC Network comprises more than 2,500 collaborators from all disciplines involved in cancer treatment and research in more than 300 hospitals in over 30 countries. Through translational and clinical research, the EORTC offers an integrated approach to drug development, drug evaluation programs and medical practices.

EORTC Headquarters, a unique pan European clinical research infrastructure, is based in Brussels, Belgium, from where its various activities are coordinated and run.

Abstract Number: B263
Presenter: Barry Nelkin, Ph.D.

Title: Combined inhibition of cyclin-dependent kinases (Dinaciclib) and AKT (MK-2206) or ERK (SCH772984) dramatically blocks pancreatic tumor growth and metastases in patient-derived orthotopic xenograft models

Authors: Chaoxin Hu1, Tikva Dadon1, Venugopal Chenna1, Shin Yabuuchi1, Rajat Bannerji2, Robert Booher2, Peter Strack2, Ahmed Samatar2, Nilofer Azad1, Barry D. Nelkin1, Anirban Maitra1. 1Johns Hopkins Univ. School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD; 2Merck and Co., Boston, MA

Pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest of all solid malignances. The 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer remains below 5%, mainly due to a lack of early detection and the highly metastatic properties that make surgery impossible in most cases. Therefore, it is urgent to find effective systemic therapies to treat this highly metastatic cancer. KRAS is activated in the vast majority of cases of pancreatic cancer; unfortunately, therapeutic attempts to inhibit KRAS directly have been unsuccessful. Our previous studies showed that inhibition of cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (CDK5), using genetic manipulation or the CDK inhibitor Dinaciclib, reduces pancreatic cancer growth and progression, through blockage of the Ral effector pathway, downstream of KRAS. Since Ral has been shown to be a centrally important effector of KRAS signaling in pancreatic cancer, we hypothesized that simultaneous blockage of two major downstream KRAS effectors may further inhibit the growth and metastasis of pancreatic cancer and provide an effective therapeutic strategy for this disease.

In the current study, the therapeutic effects of combining the CDK inhibitor Dinaciclib with inhibitors of either the PI3K/AKT effector pathway (pan-AKT inhibitor MK2206) or the RAF/MEK/ERK effector pathway (ERK inhibitor SCH772984) were evaluated using two orthotopic patient-derived human pancreatic cancer xenograft models (Panc253 and Panc265). These models closely resemble the physiological and pathological conditions of pancreatic cancer in humans. A 2-3 mm3 tumor explant was implanted into the pancreas of nude mice and ultrasound imaging was used to measure the tumor size (3D) before randomization and treatment, which began when tumors grew to 50-100 mm3. The combination of Dinaciclib (20 mg/kg, i.p., t.i.w.) and MK2206 (60 mg/kg, p.o., t.i.w.) dramatically blocked tumor growth in the orthotopic Panc265 (90.0%, p<0.001) and Panc253 (93.0%, p<0.001) models versus control. It also significantly reduced the number of metastatic lesions in both Panc265 (88.2%, p<0.001) and Panc253 (99.0%, p<0.001) tumor models. Remarkably, complete responses were induced by the combination treatment of Dinaciclib and MK2206 in one mouse in the Panc265 tumor model, and in two mice in the Panc253 tumor model.

Similarly, the combination of Dinaciclib (20 mg/kg, i.p., t.i.w.) and SCH772984 (25 mg/kg, i.p., b.i.d.) dramatically inhibited the growth of primary orthotopic Panc265 (82.5%, p < 0.001) and Panc253 (95.7%, p <0.001) versus control, and also the number of metastatic lesions of both Panc265 (94.9%, p <0.001) and Panc253 (92.4%, p <0.02).

The striking results obtained in these models appear to validate our hypothesis that blocking multiple effector pathways downstream from KRAS, including the Ral effector pathway, may provide increased efficacy in pancreatic cancer. Thus, the combinations of Dinaciclib with the pan-AKT inhibitor MK2206 or the ERK inhibitor SCH772984 are novel, highly promising potential therapies against pancreatic cancer. Based on these data, an NCI-CTEP approved Phase I clinical trial for pancreatic cancer of the combination of Dinaciclib and MK2206 has now opened here at Johns Hopkins.

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