Introduction: We and others have shown that pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) in the tumor-associated stroma of PDAC promote tumor progression and resistance to therapy but the precise mechanisms are unclear. We investigated the role of PSC-derived DKK3, a member of the Dickkopf family of glycoproteins, in PDAC progression, metastasis and response to chemotherapy.

Methods: We evaluated expression of DKK3 in human PDAC tissue and cell lines, human PSCs and in a genetically engineered mouse model (GEMM) of PDAC. The paracrine and autocrine effects of DKK3 on PDAC and PSCs were examined by treatment with exogenous DKK3 and gain- and loss of function assays for proliferation, migration, invasion, and gemcitabine-induced apoptosis. The effects of DKK3 on PDAC progression and metastasis were determined by shRNA neutralization and genetic ablation in orthotopic xenograft models and the KPC autochthonous model of PDAC. We developed novel monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) against DKK3 and tested their ability to neutralize DKK3 and prolong survival in mouse models of PDAC.

Results: DKK3 was expressed at 4.5 times higher levels in human PDAC by Affymetrix profiling compared to normal pancreas and was present in 99% (118/119) of samples on a tissue microarray with moderate to high expression in 59%. In a GEMM of PDAC, DKK3 appeared early with preneoplastic PanIN lesions with increased expression in invasive carcinoma. DKK3 was strongly expressed by PSCs with minimal to no expression in PDAC cells and knockdown by shRNA reduced PSC proliferation and migration by 60% and 84% compared to controls (p<0.001). Treatment of Panc1 and BxPC3 cells with DKK3 stimulated migration and invasion by 100-300% (p<0.001) and proliferation of DKK3-silenced Panc1 cells was decreased by 80% (p<0.001). Overexpression of DKK3 in L3.6pl cells increased colony formation in gemcitabine by >90% (p<0.001) with 65% reduction in apoptosis (p<0.01), indicating that DKK3 contributes to PDAC resistance to chemotherapy. When we ablated DKK3 in KPC mice by breeding with DKK3-knockout mice, tumor growth was inhibited and survival increased by 45% (p=0.0002). In addition, fewer PanIN lesions developed in DKK3-null mice suggesting that DKK3 may contribute to the early developmental stages of PDAC. DKK3 neutralizing mAbs abrogated DKK3-mediated induction of PDAC cell migration, invasion and resistance to gemcitabine in vitro. Furthermore, treatment with DKK3 mAb significantly inhibited primary tumor growth, reduced peritoneal metastases and prolonged survival in an orthotopic model of PDAC by 43% compared to control mAb (p=0.005; HR 0.24, 95% CI 0.01-0.30).

Conclusions: These data are the first report, to our knowledge, of a tumor-promoting function of DKK3 and our results suggest that neutralization of DKK3 may be an effective approach as a primary treatment for PDAC and to enhance responsiveness to chemotherapy.

Citation Format: Liran Zhou, Hongmei Husted, Todd Moore, Mason Lu, Defeng Deng, Yan Liu, Vijaya Ramachandran, Thiruvengadam Arumugam, Baoan Ji, Huamin Wang, Jeffrey E. Lee, Craig D. Logsdon, Rosa F. Hwang. Targeting stromal-derived Dickkopf-3 (DKK3) for the treatment of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 2961. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-2961