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Immune modulation by the dual-mechanism ERK inhibitor, ASTX029, in MAPK-activated tumor models


Whilst mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway inhibitors are approved therapies in mutant-BRAF driven cancers and have demonstrated a high response rate in the clinic, the duration of response is often short-lived. Approaches targeting the immune system have elicited durable responses and led to the approval of checkpoint inhibitors such as the anti-PD1 therapy, pembrolizumab, in indications where MAPK pathway activation is often observed, such as melanoma. Activation of the MAPK pathway has been associated with an immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME). Further, preclinical studies have demonstrated that in addition to inhibiting MAPK activity in tumor cells, MAPK pathway inhibitors such as the BRAFV600E inhibitor dabrafenib or MEK inhibitor trametinib have promoted a more proinflammatory TME leading to upregulated antigen presentation on tumor cells, increased CD8+ T cell infiltration and tumor cell killing. Similar preclinical results were recently reported for a KRASG12C inhibitor, AMG 510, where treatment of in vivo models led to an increase in tumor infiltrating lymphocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells and an increase in active immune gene signatures leading to tumor immunity.

We have recently described the discovery of ASTX029, which is currently undergoing clinical development in advanced solid tumors (NCT03520075). ASTX029 is a dual-mechanism ERK1/2 (ERK) inhibitor, inhibiting both the catalytic activity and phosphorylation of ERK, and shows potent inhibition of MAPK-activated tumor growth in preclinical models. Previous studies have demonstrated a difference in regulation of genes involved in response to type I interferon following treatment with dual-mechanism compared to catalytic ERK inhibitors.

We investigated whether treatment with ASTX029 modulates antigen presentation and the TME in MAPK-activated tumors. Following treatment of cell lines in vitro, we observed ASTX029-dependent changes consistent with increased antigen presentation, including an increase in cell surface expression of MHC class I and the increase in gene expression of tumor-specific antigens gp100 and MART-1 following treatment of melanoma cells. We have previously demonstrated that ASTX029 has good bioavailability following oral dosing in mice. To further investigate the effect of ASTX029 on the TME, syngeneic tumors grown in immunocompetent mice dosed with ASTX029 were characterized in terms of immune cell composition of the TME and gene expression. Our results were consistent with increased immune activation, including increased interferon signaling and a change in the immune cell composition of the TME.

These data demonstrate that treatment with ASTX029 leads to modulation of the TME and we hypothesize that to optimize therapeutic activity, ASTX029 could be partnered either with an immunomodulatory or tumor-directed agent.