RON (MST1R) is one of two members of the MET receptor tyrosine kinase family, along with parent receptor MET. RON has a putative role in several cancers, but its expression and function is poorly characterized in gastroesophageal adenocarcinoma. A recognized functional role of MET tyrosine kinase in gastroesophageal cancer has led to early phase clinical trials using MET inhibitors, with unimpressive results. Therefore, the role of RON in gastroesophageal cancer, as well as its role in cooperative signaling with MET and as a mechanism of resistance to MET inhibition, was studied in gastroesophageal tissues and cell lines. By IHC, RON was highly overexpressed in 74% of gastroesophageal samples (n = 94) and overexpression was prognostic of poor survival (p = 0.008); RON and MET co-expression occurred in 43% of samples and was prognostic of worst survival (p = 0.03). High MST1R gene copy number by quantitative polymerase chain reaction and confirmed by fluorescence in situ hybridization and/or array comparative genomic hybridization, was seen in 35.5% (16/45) of cases. High MST1R gene copy number correlated with poor survival (p = 0.01), and was associated with high MET and ERBB2 gene copy number. a novel somatic MST1R juxtamembrane mutation R1018G was found in 11% of samples. RON signaling was functional in cell lines, activating downstream effector STAT3, and resulted in increased viability over controls. RON and MET co-stimulation assays led to enhanced malignant phenotypes over stimulation of either receptor alone. Growth inhibition as evidenced by viability and apoptosis assays was optimal using novel blocking monoclonal antibodies to both ROn and MET, versus either alone. SU11274, a classic MET small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor, blocked signaling of both receptors and proved synergistic when combined with STAT3 inhibition (combination index <1). These preclinical studies define RON as an important novel prognostic marker and therapeutic target for gastroesophageal cancer warranting further investigation
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