GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


Molecular, Cell and Cancer Biology

First Thesis Advisor

Brian Lewis, Ph.D.


Pancreatic Neoplasms, Proto-Oncogene Proteins, ras Proteins, Proto-Oncogene Proteins B-raf


Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer related death in the United States with a median survival time of less than 6 months. Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) accounts for greater than 85% of all pancreatic cancers, and is marked by early and frequent mutation of the KRAS oncogene, with activating KRAS mutations present in over 90% of PDAC. To date, though, targeting activated KRAS for cancer treatment has been very difficult, and targeted therapies are currently being sought for the downstream effectors of activated KRAS. Activation of KRAS stimulates multiple signaling pathways, including the MEK-ERK and PI3K-AKT signaling cascades, but the role of downstream effectors in pancreatic tumor initiation and progression remains unclear. I therefore used primary pancreatic ductal epithelial cells (PDECs), the putative cell of origin for PDAC, to determine the role of specific downstream signaling pathways in KRAS activated pancreatic tumor initiation. As one third of KRAS wild type PDACs harbor activating mutations in BRAF , and KRAS and BRAF mutations appear to be mutually exclusive, I also sought to determine the effect of activated BRAF (BRAF V600E ) expression on PDECs and the signaling requirements downstream of BRAF.

I found that both KRAS G12D and BRAF V600E expressing PDECs displayed increased proliferation relative to GFP expressing controls, as well as increased PDEC survival after challenge with apoptotic stimuli. This survival was found to depend on both the MEK-ERK and PI3K-AKT signaling cascades. Surprisingly, I found that this survival is also dependent on the IGF1R, and that activation of PI3K/AKT signaling occurs downstream of MEK/ERK activation, and is dependent on signaling through the IGF1R. Consistent with this, I find increased IGF2 expression in KRAS G12D and BRAF V600E expressing PDECs, and show that ectopic expression of IGF2 rescues survival in PDECs with inhibited MEK, but not PI3K. Finally, I showed that the expression of KRAS G12D or BRAF V600E in PDECs lacking both the Ink4a/Arf and Trp53 tumor suppressors is sufficient for tumor formation following orthotopic transplant of PDECs, and that IGF1R knockdown impairs KRAS and BRAF-induced tumor formation in this model.

In addition to these findings within PDECs, I demonstrate that KRAS G12D or BRAF V600E expressing tumor cell lines differ in MEK-ERK and PI3K-AKT signaling from PDECs. In contrast to KRAS G12D or BRAF V600E expressing PDECs, activation of AKT at serine 473 in the KRAS G12D or BRAF V600E expressing tumor cell lines does not lie downstream of MEK, and only the inhibition of PI3K alone or both MEK and the IGF1R simultaneously results in loss of tumor cell line survival. However, inhibition of MEK, PI3K, or the IGF1R in KRAS G12D or BRAF V600E expressing tumor cell lines also resulted in decreased proliferation relative to DMSO treated cells, demonstrating that all three signaling cascades remain important for tumor cell growth and are therefore viable options for pancreatic cancer therapeutics.



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