Anaplastic lymphoma kinase tyrosine kinase inhibitors (ALK-TKIs) induce a dramatic response in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients with the ALK fusion gene. However, acquired resistance to ALK-TKIs remains an inevitable problem. In this study, we aimed to discover novel therapeutic targets to conquer ALK-positive lung cancer. We established three types of ALK-TKI (crizotinib, alectinib and ceritinib) -resistant H2228 NSCLC cell lines by high exposure and stepwise methods. We found these cells showed a loss of ALK signaling, overexpressed AXL with epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and had cancer stem cell-like (CSC) properties, suggesting drug-tolerant cancer cell subpopulations. Similarly, we demonstrated that TGF-β1 treated H2228 cells also showed AXL overexpression with EMT features and ALK-TKI resistance. The AXL inhibitor, R428, or HSP90 inhibitor, ganetespib, were effective in reversing ALK-TKI resistance and EMT changes in both ALK-TKI-resistant and TGF-β1-exposed H2228 cells. Tumor volumes of xenograft mice implanted with established H2228-ceritinib-resistant (H2228-CER) cells were significantly reduced after treatment with ganetespib, or ganetespib in combination with ceritinib. Some ALK-positive NSCLC patients with AXL overexpression showed a poorer response to crizotinib therapy than patients with a low expression of AXL. ALK signaling-independent AXL overexpressed in drug-tolerant cancer cell subpopulations with EMT and CSC features may be commonly involved commonly involved in intrinsic and acquired resistance to ALK-TKIs. This suggests AXL and HSP90 inhibitors may be promising therapeutic drugs to overcome drug-tolerant cancer cell subpopulations in ALK-positive NSCLC patients for the reason that ALK-positive NSCLC cells do not live through ALK-TKI therapy.

Citation Format: Shinji Nakamichi, Seike Masahiro, Akihiko Miyanaga, Akiko Takahashi, Rintaro Noro, Kaoru Kubota, Akihiko Gemma. Overcoming drug-tolerant cancer cell subpopulations showing AXL activation and epithelial-mesenchymal transition is critical in conquering ALK-positive lung cancer [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2019; 2019 Mar 29-Apr 3; Atlanta, GA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2019;79(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 3806.