Most pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDACs) express an activated form of KRAS, become hypoxic and dysplastic, and are refractory to chemo- and radiation-therapies. To survive in the hypoxic environment, PDAC cells upregulate enzymes and transporters involved in pH regulation, including the extracellular facing carbonic anhydrase 9 (CA9). We evaluated the effect of blocking CA9, in combination with administration of gemcitabine, in mouse models of pancreatic cancer.
We knocked down expression of KRAS in human (PK-8 and PK-1) PDAC cells with small hairpin RNAs. Human and mouse (KrasG12D/Pdx1-Cre/Tp53/RosaYFP) PDAC cells were incubated with inhibitors of MEK (trametinib) or ERK and some cells were cultured under hypoxic conditions. We measured levels and stability of the hypoxia inducible factor 1 subunit alpha (HIF1A), endothelial PAS domain 1 protein (EPAS1, also called HIF2A), CA9, solute carrier family 16 member 4 (SLC16A4, also called MCT4), and SLC2A1 (also called GLUT1) by immunoblot analyses. We analyzed intracellular pH (pHi) and extracellular metabolic flux. We knocked down expression of CA9 in PDAC cells, or inhibited CA9 with SLC-0111, incubated them with gemcitabine, and assessed pHi, metabolic flux, and cytotoxicity under normoxic and hypoxic conditions. Cells were also injected into either immune-compromised or immune-competent mice and growth of xenograft tumors was assessed. Tumor fragments derived from PDAC patients were surgically ligated to the pancreas of mice and the growth of tumors was assessed. We performed tissue microarray analyses of 205 human PCAC samples to measure levels of CA9 and associated expression of genes that regulate hypoxia with outcomes of patients using the Cancer Genome Atlas database.
Under hypoxic conditions, PDAC cells had increased levels of HIF1A and endothelial PAS domain 1 protein (EPAS1, also called HIF2A), upregulated expression of CA9, and activated glycolysis. Knockdown of KRAS in PDAC cells, or incubation with trametinib, reduced the post-transcriptional stabilization of HIF1A and HIF2A, upregulation of CA9, pHi, and glycolysis in response to hypoxia. CA9 was expressed by 66% of PDAC samples analyzed; high expression of genes associated with metabolic adaptation to hypoxia, including CA9, correlated with significantly reduced survival times of patients. Knockdown or pharmacologic inhibition of CA9 in PDAC cells significantly reduced pHi in cells under hypoxic conditions, decreased gemcitabine-induced glycolysis, and increased their sensitivity to gemcitabine. PDAC cells with knockdown of CA9 formed smaller xenograft tumors in mice, and injection of gemcitabine inhibited tumor growth and significantly increased survival times of mice. In mice with xenograft tumors grown from human PDAC cells, oral administration of SLC-0111 and injection of gemcitabine increased intra-tumor acidosis and increased cell death. These tumors, and tumors grown from PDAC patient-derived tumor fragments, grew more slowly than xenograft tumors in mice given control agents, resulting in longer survival times. In KrasG12D/Pdx1-Cre/Tp53/RosaYFP genetically modified mice, oral administration of SLC-0111 and injection of gemcitabine reduced numbers of B cells in tumors.
In response to hypoxia, PDAC cells that express activated KRAS increase expression of CA9, via stabilization of HIF1A and HIF2A, to regulate pH and glycolysis. Disruption of this pathway slows growth of PDAC xenograft tumors in mice and might be developed for treatment of pancreatic cancer.