We read with great interest the paper by Lin et al (2011) reporting a marked intratumor heterogeneity for activating BRAF mutations in primary melanomas and their positive selection along with disease recurrence or metastatic evolution. On the basis of these observations, the authors agreeably conclude that, rather than being a founder event, BRAF mutations more likely represent one of the many genetic alterations that are selected during disease progression.
The fine characterization of the ‘evolutionary biology’ of activating BRAF mutation in melanoma progression is clearly relevant as it correlates with a more aggressive course of disease (Long et al, 2011); nevertheless, it also bears important practical implications, as BRAF mutation in metastatic cutaneous melanoma is the molecular hallmark to select patients for treatment with the highly effective BRAF kinase inhibitors under active clinical development (Flaherty et al, 2010).
Prompted by the findings of Lin et al (2011), we asked the question whether, once melanoma has reached the metastatic stage, the BRAF mutational status undergoes additional evolution with disease progression over time and metastatic sites. To address this issue, we investigated the activating BRAFV600E mutation in primary cell cultures generated from initial metastatic lesions surgically removed from 15 cutaneous melanoma patients, and in 19 subsequent metastases (Table 1). It is noteworthy that metachronous melanoma metastases, even when removed from different body parts of individual patients at a median time interval of 305 days (range 26–1318), ‘stabilized’ for the BRAFV600E mutated status. The original heterozygous BRAFV600E status was consistently retained in 10 out of 15 patients investigated, whereas 2 out of 15 acquired a homozygous mutated status as compared with an initial heterozygous condition (Table 1). Additionally, no BRAFV600E mutation was acquired in three patients with an initial homozygous wild-type BRAF genotype (Table 1). These findings suggest that, once melanoma reaches the metastatic stage, its BRAFV600E mutational status remains substantially unchanged in subsequent melanoma metastases, regardless of the time intervals to develop new metastatic lesions and site(s) of further metastatization. The lack of further modifications in the BRAF mutational condition, once melanoma has metastasized, can possibly result from absent/limited intratumor heterogeneity for the mutation in the metastatic disease. Supporting this idea, single-cell clones generated from the short-term metastatic melanoma cultures Mel 195 and Mel 313 retained the heterozygous BRAFV600E mutated and homozygous wild-type genotypes of the parental metastatic cells, respectively (Figure 1).
On the basis of Lin et al (2011) and our data, it is likely that activating BRAF mutations are positively selected during melanoma progression until reaching the metastatic stage when the BRAF mutational status stabilizes. This finding, together with the likely limited intratumor heterogeneity of BRAF mutations, suggests that the metastatic stage of BRAF-mutated melanomas represents the most appropriate therapeutic setting for BRAF inhibitors. The highly stable BRAF status identified among metachronous melanoma metastases also bears important practical implications. In fact, any metastatic accessible tissue, either fresh or archival, regardless of the timing of metastasis and site of melanoma progression, being representative of the final BRAF mutational status of disease in a given individual, could be safely utilized to identify patients who are candidate to BRAF inhibitors. Molecular mechanism(s) of melanoma resistance to BRAF inhibitors are being initially elucidated and seem to be independent from the outgrowth of BRAF wild-type melanoma lesions (Solit and Rosen, 2011). Being the BRAF mutational status stable over time in metastatic melanoma, it is reasonable to speculate that overcoming the BRAF inhibitors-induced intrinsic resistance of melanoma cells, could allow to continue or re-challenge patients with these highly promising therapeutic agents.
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This work was supported in part by grants from the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro (IG 6038 to MM and MFAG 9195 to LS), Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, and the Harry J Lloyd Charitable Trust.
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Sigalotti, L., Fratta, E., Parisi, G. et al. Stability of BRAF V600E mutation in metastatic melanoma: new insights for therapeutic success?. Br J Cancer 105, 327–328 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/bjc.2011.239
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