Targeting Autophagy Sensitizes BRAF-Mutant Thyroid Cancer to Vemurafenib


The RAF inhibitor vemurafenib has provided a major advance for the treatment of patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma. However, BRAF-mutant thyroid cancer is relatively resistant to vemurafenib, and the reason for this disparity remains unclear. Anticancer therapy-induced autophagy can trigger adaptive drug resistance in a variety of cancer types and treatments. To date, role of autophagy during BRAF inhibition in thyroid cancer remains unknown.


In this study, we investigate if autophagy is activated in vemurafenib-treated BRAF-mutant thyroid cancer cells, and whether autophagy inhibition improves or impairs the treatment efficacy of vemurafenib.


Autophagy level was determined by western blot assay and transmission electron microscopy. The combined effects of autophagy inhibitor and vemurafenib were assessed in terms of cell viability in vitro and tumor growth rate in vivo. Whether the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress was in response to vemurafenib-induced autophagy was also analyzed.


Vemurafenib induced a high level of autophagy in BRAF-mutant thyroid cancer cells. Inhibition of autophagy by either a pharmacological inhibitor or interfering RNA knockdown of essential autophagy genes augmented vemurafenib-induced cell death. Vemurafenib-induced autophagy was independent of MAPK signaling pathway and was mediated through the ER stress response. Finally, administration of vemurafenib with the autophagy inhibitor hydroxychloroquine promoted more pronounced tumor suppression in vivo.


Our data demonstrate that vemurafenib induces ER stress response-mediated autophagy in thyroid cancer and autophagy inhibition may be a beneficial strategy to sensitize BRAF-mutant thyroid cancer to vemurafenib.

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