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Convergent evolution of resistance pathways during early stage breast cancer treatment with combination cell cycle (CDK) and endocrine inhibitors

By Jason I. Griffiths, Jinfeng Chen, Patrick A Cosgrove, Anne O'Dea, Priyanka Sharma, Cynthia Ma, Meghna Trivedi, Kevin Kalinsky, Kari B Wisinski, Ruth O'Regan, , Issam Makhoul, Laura M Spring, Aditya Bardia, Frederick R Adler, Adam L Cohen, Jeffrey T Chang, Qamar J Khan, Andrea Bild

Posted 20 Jan 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.01.19.427299

Combining cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) inhibitors with endocrine therapy improves outcomes for metastatic estrogen receptor positive (ER+), HER2 negative, breast cancer patients. However, the value of this combination in potentially curable earlier stage patients is not clear. Using single cell transcriptomic profiling, we examined the evolutionary trajectories of early stage breast cancer tumors using serial tumor biopsies from a clinical trial of preoperative endocrine therapy (letrozole) alone or in combination with the cell cycle inhibitor ribociclib. Applying hierarchical regression and Gaussian process mathematical modelling, we classified each tumor by whether it shrinks or persists with therapy and determined cancer phenotypes related to evolution of resistance and cell cycle transcriptional rewiring. We found that all patients' tumors undergo subclonal evolution during therapy, irrespective of the clinical response. However, tumors subjected to endocrine therapy alone showed reduced diversity over time, while those facing combination therapy exhibited increased diversity. Despite different subclonal diversity, single nuclei RNA sequencing uncovered common phenotypic changes in tumor cells that persist following treatment. In these tumors, cancer cells with accelerated loss of estrogen signaling have convergent up-regulation of the JNK pathway, while cells that maintain estrogen signaling during therapy show potentiation of CDK4/6 activation consistent with ERBB4 and ERK signaling up-regulation. These convergent phenotypes were associated with growing tumors resistant to combination therapy. Cell cycle reconstruction identified that these tumors can rebound during combination therapy treatment, indicating stronger selection and promotion of a proliferative state. These results indicate that combination therapy in early stage ER+ breast cancers with ER and CDK inhibition drives rapid evolution of resistance via a shift from estrogen signaling to alternative growth factor receptor mediated proliferation and JNK signaling activation, concordant with a bypass in the G1 checkpoint.

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