BACKGROUND - Pancreas cancer is one of most aggressive human cancers with the survival rate for patients with metastatic pancreas cancer at 5-6 months. The poor survival demonstrates a clear need for better target identification, drug development and new therapeutic strategies. Recent discoveries have shown that the role for Notch pathway is important in both development and cancer. Its contribution to oncogenesis also involves crosstalks with other growth factor pathways, such as Akt and its modulator, PTEN. The mounting evidence supporting a role for Notch in cancer promotion and survival suggests that targeting this pathway alone or in combination with other therapeutics represents a promising therapeutic strategy.
RESULTS - Using a pancreas cancer tissue microarray, we noted that Jagged1, Notch3 and Notch4 are overexpressed in pancreas tumors (26%, 84% and 31% respectively), whereas Notch1 is expressed in blood vessels. While there was no correlation between Notch receptor expression and survival, stage or tumor grade, Notch3 was associated with Jagged1 and EGFR expression, suggesting a unique relationship between Notch3 and Jagged1. Inhibition of the Notch pathway genetically and with gamma-secretase inhibitor (GSI) resulted in tumor suppression and enhanced cell death. The observed anti-tumor activity appeared to be through Akt and modulation of PTEN phosphorylation. We discovered that transcriptional regulation of RhoA by Notch is important for PTEN phosphorylation. Finally, the mTOR inhibitor Rapamycin enhanced the effect of GSI on RhoA expression, resulting in down regulation of phospho-Akt and increased in vitro tumor cytotoxity.
CONCLUSIONS - Notch pathway plays an important role in maintaining pancreas tumor phenotype. Targeting this pathway represents a reasonable strategy for the treatment of pancreas cancers. Notch modulates the Akt pathway through regulation of PTEN phosphorylation, an observation that has not been made previously. Furthermore, we discovered that this regulation is dependent on RhoA/Rock1 activation. Enhanced phospho-Akt suppression when GSI is combined with rapamycin suggests that targeting both pathways will lead to a greater efficacy in the treatment of patients with pancreas cancer.