Patients diagnosed with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) frequently present with advanced metastatic disease and exhibit a poor response to therapy, resulting in poor outcomes. The tumor microenvironment cytokine Oncostatin-M (OSM) initiates PDAC plasticity, inducing the reprogramming to a stem-like/mesenchymal state, which enhances metastasis and therapy resistance. Using a panel of PDAC cells driven through epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) by OSM or the transcription factors ZEB1 or SNAI1, we find that OSM uniquely induces tumor initiation and gemcitabine resistance independently of its ability to induce a CD44HI/mesenchymal phenotype. In contrast, while ZEB1 and SNAI1 induce a CD44HI/mesenchymal phenotype and migration comparable with OSM, they are unable to promote tumor initiation or robust gemcitabine resistance. Transcriptomic analysis identified that OSM-mediated stemness requires MAPK activation and sustained, feed-forward transcription of OSMR. MEK and ERK inhibitors prevented OSM-driven transcription of select target genes and stem-like/mesenchymal reprogramming, resulting in reduced tumor growth and resensitization to gemcitabine. We propose that the unique properties of OSMR, which hyperactivates MAPK signaling when compared with other IL6 family receptors, make it an attractive therapeutic target, and that disrupting the OSM-OSMR-MAPK feed-forward loop may be a novel way to therapeutically target the stem-like behaviors common to aggressive PDAC.
Small-molecule MAPK inhibitors may effectively target the OSM/OSMR-axis that leads to EMT and tumor initiating properties that promote aggressive PDAC.