Activating BRAF mutants drive human tumors by dysregulating ERK signaling despite ERK-dependent feedback suppression of RAS. These RAF mutants become RAS independent, by either of two mechanisms, and they are thus unaffected by feedback inhibition of upstream signaling. Recently, it has become clear that mutation activation of MEK1 or MEK2 occur at appreciable frequency in human tumors, but the mechanism of activation of these mutants and whether they remain dependent on upstream activation of RAS or RAF signaling remains unknown. Here we characterized the mechanism of activation of 18 recurrent MEK1 mutants identified in human cancer. Based on these data, they fall into three classes. The kinase activity of first class remains dependent on RAF mediated phosphorylation of S218 and S222; the second class of MEK mutants has basal RAF-independent activity, but can be further stimulated by RAF and the third class no longer requires phosphorylation of S218 and S222 and signals in a RAF independent manner. These features determined their sensitivity to ERK-dependent feedback regulation and the ability to drive ERK signaling output in cells. The more RAF-independent activity the mutants acquired, the better they could activate downstream ERK pathway, leading to increased transforming activities in MEF cells in the absence of RAF. This is consistent with their genetic association with RAS, RAF and NF1 mutations in human tumors. The Class 3 RAF-independent MEK1 mutants tend to be mutually exclusive with those mutants, while coexistence with RAS/RAF/NF1 mutations is frequently observed in tumors with Class 1 or 2 MEK1 mutants. Moreover, functional class correlated with sensitivities of ERK signaling driven by these mutants to MEK inhibitors that function by different mechanisms. Unlike RAF dependent or regulated MEK1 mutants, the ERK signaling driven by RAF independent MEK1 mutants is insensitive to an allosteric MEK inhibitor that functions by preventing RAF mediated MEK phosphorylation. However, signaling driven by all classes of MEK1 mutants is sensitive to an ATP competitive MEK1 inhibitor which targets MEK1 kinase activity.

Citation Format: Yijun Gao, Matthew T. Chang, Daniel McKay, Rona D. Yaeger, Merna Torres, Keven Muniz, Drosten Matthias, Omar I. Abdel-Wahab, Mariano Barbacid, Giordano Caponigro, Darrin Stuart, David Solit, Barry S. Taylor, Zhan Yao, Neal Rosen. Activation mechanisms of cancer associated MEK1 mutants [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 395. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-395