INTRODUCTION: We hypothesized that activating KRAS mutations and inactivation of the liver kinase B1 (LKB1) oncosuppressor can cooperate to sustain NSCLC aggressiveness. We also hypothesized that the growth advantage of KRAS/LKB1 co-mutated tumors could be balanced by higher sensitivity to metabolic stress conditions, such as metformin treatment, thus revealing new strategies to target this aggressive NSCLC subtype.
METHODS: We retrospectively determined the frequency and prognostic value of KRAS/LKB1 co-mutations in tissue specimens from NSCLC patients enrolled in the TAILOR trial. We generated stable LKB1 knockdown and LKB1-overexpressing isogenic H1299 and A549 cell variants, respectively, to test the in vitro efficacy of metformin. We also investigated the effect of metformin on cisplatin-resistant CD133+ cells in NSCLC patient-derived xenografts.
RESULTS: We found a trend towards worse overall survival in patients with KRAS/LKB1 co-mutated tumors as compared to KRAS-mutated ones (hazard ratio: 2.02, 95% confidence interval: 0.94-4.35, p = 0.072). In preclinical experiments, metformin produced pro-apoptotic effects and enhanced cisplatin anticancer activity specifically in KRAS/LKB1 co-mutated patient-derived xenografts. Moreover, metformin prevented the development of acquired tumor resistance to 5 consecutive cycles of cisplatin treatment (75% response rate with metformin-cisplatin as compared to 0% response rate with cisplatin), while reducing CD133+ cells.
CONCLUSIONS: LKB1 mutations, especially when combined with KRAS mutations, may define a specific and more aggressive NSCLC subtype. Metformin synergizes with cisplatin against KRAS/LKB1 co-mutated tumors, and may prevent or delay the onset of resistance to cisplatin by targeting CD133+ cancer stem cells. This study lays the foundations for combining metformin with standard platinum-based chemotherapy in the treatment of KRAS/LKB1 co-mutated NSCLC.