In brief

When cMET (blue) and Her2 (pink) form a dimer (below), it can cause a form of cancer that is resistant to cMET inhibitors but is still susceptible to Her2 inhibitors.

© A*STAR Research

Cancer has MET its match

4 Dec 2020

A genetic discovery reveals why some aggressive carcinomas do not respond to standard treatment and suggest a more effective option.

All cancers are defined by the unrestrained growth of cells, leading to tumor growth and metastasis. But what makes some cancers respond well to treatment, and not others? Identifying the genetic background of the cancer is often a crucial first step towards devising an effective treatment that exploits its unique vulnerabilities.

Some squamous cell carcinomas—such as those in the head, neck and lung—are known to respond poorly to standard treatment, in addition to being notoriously aggressive. Now, a multi-disciplinary effort with collaborators from A*STAR’s Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) has discovered why these aggressive carcinomas behave the way they do.

It turns out that a variant of the cancer-associated MET gene, called METN375S, is responsible for a subset of aggressive squamous cell carcinoma. This polymorphism was previously reported among certain ancestries, including South Asians and East Asians, and among 11% of the Singaporean population.

“Using germline DNA samples and medical history from cancer patients, we managed to confirm that METN375S is correlated to poorer prognosis in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and lung squamous cell carcinoma,” said study co-author Chandra Verma, a Senior Principal Investigator at BII. The study, published in Nature Communications, was conducted by Li Ren Kong, a Research Fellow at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore with a team led by Boon Cher Goh of the National University Health System (NUHS).

Because the tumors associated with this variant did not respond to c-MET inhibitors, which are the standard treatment for inhibiting oncogenic c-MET kinase activity, there has been a lack of interest in pursuing METN375S as a predictive biomarker in the clinic.

A thorough molecular dissection of METN375S to understand how this variant can cause such aggressive tumors revealed that this c-MET mutant codes for a variant that binds with high affinity to a receptor kinase called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

Once bound, the METN375S/HER2 dimer activates HER2 signaling in a ligand-independent fashion, sending out cues for tumor cells to proliferate, invade and metastasize rapidly. The result: aggressive squamous cell carcinoma.

Verma and Srinivasaraghavan Kannan at BII were able to model this phenomenon using computer simulations. Their simulations showed that HER2 remains active even in the presence of c-MET inhibitors, which explains why the tumors never responded well to c-MET inhibitors.

Instead of targeting c-MET, their data suggest that targeting HER2 may be a better option for inhibiting HER2 signaling. “Treatment with HER2 inhibitors is able to shut down the METN375S/HER2-induced axis and suppress tumor cell growth and invasiveness,” Verma said.

Clinical trial recruitment has begun for patients with the METN375S polymorphism, who will receive daily treatment with a pan-HER2 inhibitor drug called afatinib. “National University Hospital is currently screening for and recruiting patients who carry the METN375S variant,” Kong revealed.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the Bioinformatics Institute (BII).

Want to stay up to date with breakthroughs from A*STAR? Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn!


Kong, L.R., Salleh, N.A.B.M., Ong, R.W., Tan, T. Z., Syn N. L. et al. A common MET polymorphism harnesses HER2 signaling to drive aggressive squamous cell carcinoma. Nature Communications 11, 1556 (2020). | article

About the Researcher

View articles

Chandra Verma

Senior Principal Investigator

Bioinformatics Institute
Chandra Verma is a Senior Principal Investigator at the A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute (BII), where he leads a research group at the Biomolecular Modelling And Design Division that works on computational protein dynamics. With his team, he uses atomistic computer models and simulations to uncover biological mechanisms and to design molecules, peptides and proteins for use as potential reagents and therapeutic drugs. Verma holds an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and a PhD degree from the University of York.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group