CDK4/6 inhibition synergizes with inhibition of P21-Activated Kinases (PAKs) in lung cancer cell lines

Theoretically, small molecule CDK4/6 inhibitors (CDK4/6is) represent a logical therapeutic option in non-small cell lung cancers since most of these malignancies have wildtype RB, the key target of CDKs and master regulator of the cell cycle. Unfortunately, CDK4/6is are found to have limited clinical activity as single agents in non-small cell lung cancer. To address this problem and to identify effective CDK4/6i combinations, we screened a library of targeted agents for efficacy in four non-small cell lung cancer lines treated with CDK4/6 inhibitors Palbociclib or Abemaciclib. The pan-PAK (p21-activated kinase) inhibitor PF03758309 emerged as a promising candidate with viability ratios indicating synergy in all 4 cell lines and for both CDK4/6is. It is noteworthy that the PAKs are downstream effectors of small GTPases Rac1 and Cdc42 and are overexpressed in a wide variety of cancers. Individually the compounds primarily induced cell cycle arrest; however, the synergistic combination induced apoptosis, accounting for the synergy. Surprisingly, while the pan-PAK inhibitor PF03758309 synergizes with CDK4/6is, no synergy occurs with group I PAK inhibitors FRAX486 or FRAX597. Cell lines treated only with Ribociclib, FRAX486 or FRAX597 underwent G1/G0 arrest, whereas combination treatment with these compounds predominantly resulted in autophagy. Combining high concentrations of FRAX486, which weakly inhibits PAK4, and Ribociclib, mimics the autophagy and apoptotic effect of PF03758309 combined with Ribociclib. FRAX597, a PAKi that does not inhibit PAK4 did not reduce autophagy in combination with Ribociclib. Our results suggest that a unique combination of PAKs plays a crucial role in the synergy of PAK inhibitors with CDK4/6i. Targeting this unique PAK combination, could greatly improve the efficacy of CDK4/6i and broaden the spectrum of cancer treatment.