Background: Despite incremental advances in chemotherapy and endocrine therapy, survival outcomes for patients with ER-positive (ER+) metastatic breast cancer (MBC) remain poor. The majority of relapsing tumors exhibit deregulation of the cyclin-dependent kinase 4 and 6 (CDK4/6)/cyclin D1 (CCND1)/Rb signaling pathway. CDK4/6 inhibitors (such as palbociclib) in combination with endocrine therapy have been shown to significantly improve progression free survival in patients who are in 1st or 2nd line relapse, although overall survival benefit has yet to be demonstrated. This may reflect their largely cytostatic mechanism of action, with minimal induction of tumor cell death. Thus, combinatorial strategies that also induce apoptosis could be beneficial. Notably, the pro-survival protein BCL-2 is overexpressed in the majority of ER+ tumors and the potent and specific BCL-2 inhibitor venetoclax (ABT-199) has been found to synergize with endocrine therapy in patient derived xenograft (PDX) models. Promising activity has also been observed in an early phase clinical trial. We therefore investigated dual targeting of the CDK4/6 and BCL-2 pathways in pre-clinical models of ER+ and BCL-2+ breast cancer.

Results: We first examined endocrine sensitive or resistant cell-lines and found that pro-survival BCL-2 proteins were upregulated in resistant cells. BCL-2 family protein levels were also found to be elevated in palbociclib resistant cells, suggesting that BCL-2 could represent a therapeutic target. We next determined whether venetoclax improved response to dual therapy comprising the selective estrogen receptor degrader fulvestrant and palbociclib. In clonogenic assays of endocrine sensitive breast cancer cell lines, triple therapy containing venetoclax significantly reduced the number and size of colonies, when compared to double therapy. The addition of venetoclax to fulvestrant/palbociclib also augmented cell death in tumor organoid models derived from either ER+ BCL-2+ primary tumors or PDX models. Moreover, triple therapy improved tumor response and overall survival in mice bearing ER+ BCL-2+ PDX tumors. Mechanistically, this was accompanied by increased apoptosis and reduced cellular proliferation (as determined by cleaved caspase-3 and Ki67 levels, respectively). As CDK4/6 inhibitors have recently been shown to promote anti-tumor immunity, we evaluated immune modulation using the ER+ 67NR cell line in a syngeneic (BALB/c) mouse mammary tumor model. Similar to the PDX models, triple therapy comprising fulvestrant, palbociclib and venetoclax was more effective than double therapy comprising either fulvestrant/palbociclib or fulvestrant/venetoclax. Flow cytometric analysis of tumors revealed that this was accompanied by a reduced intratumoral FOXP3+:cytotoxic CD8 T-cell ratio.

Conclusions: The addition of the BCL-2 inhibitor venetoclax to conventional therapy comprising endocrine therapy and a CDK4/6 inhibitor augments tumor response and elicits a favorable intratumoral immune profile. Collectively, these findings support investigation of combination therapy in the clinic for patients with ER+ BCL-2+ MBC.

Citation Format: Whittle JR, Vaillant F, Policheni AN, Liu K, Pal B, Giner G, Fernandez K, Gray DH, Caldon CE, Smyth GK, Visvader JE, Lindeman GJ. Synergistic targeting of CDK4/6 and BCL-2 pathways in estrogen receptor positive breast cancer [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 2018 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium; 2018 Dec 4-8; San Antonio, TX. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2019;79(4 Suppl):Abstract nr PD7-07.