Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Biology (Cell Biology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology)

Major Professor

Mokenge P. Malafa, M.D.

Committee Member

Gary Reuther, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Eric Lau, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Domenico Coppola, M.D.


EGFR, Olaparib, resistance


Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the USA and it is expected to surpass heart diseases making it important to understand the underlying mechanisms of cancer. The efforts to target single signaling molecule showed little success in increasing the patient survival and it can be due to increased compensation for cell survival by alternative pathway activations. Hence comprehensive understanding of the alternative signaling pathways may help us treat cancer better. Chronic inflammation is attributed to increased risk of cancer and emerging studies show the growing importance of both canonical and non-canonical IκB kinases such as IKKα, IKKβ, IKBKE and TBK1 in human cancer pathogenesis. Initially identified as activator of NFκB pathway, IKBKE was shown to play an important oncogenic role by regulating multiple pathways downstream. Although IKBKE is implicated in tumorigenesis for over a decade, therapeutic targeting of this pathway has been a challenge. Recently, amlexanox and CYT387, which are in clinical trials for Type II diabetes and myeloproliferative disorders respectively, were identified as potential IKBKE inhibitors. In this study, we uncovered specific novel mechanisms of activation of IKBKE in tumor cells and the outcomes of targeting IKBKE pathway.

Oncogenic mutations are a cause of several human malignancies. Mutations in EGFR are observed in 15% of non-small cell lung cancer patients. While cells expressing these mutations respond better to the first generation TKIs, patients become resistant to these inhibitors due to secondary mutations in EGFR. These mutations were shown to make EGFR constitutively active even in the absence of ligands. Direct targeting of EGFR with secondary mutations has been challenging as EGFR acquires novel mutations upon inhibitor treatment, which confer resistance to the EGFR-TKIs. Hence, it is important to improve our knowledge of the downstream signaling pathways of EGFR. Although PI3K, MEK signaling are well established, mutant EGFR was shown to activate several novel signaling pathways such as miRNA processing and autophagy that are implicated in resistance to EGFR-TKIs.

Here, we show that IKBKE acts downstream of mutant EGFR to activate the NFκB and AKT pathways. In addition, we show that mutant EGFR but not wildtype EGFR can directly phosphorylate IKBKE at Tyrosine 153 and Tyrosine 179 residues that are important for activation of IKBKE kinase. We also found that the IKBKE/TBK1 inhibitor Amlexanox exhibits increased efficacy in inhibiting cell viability in NSCLC cells with activating EGFR mutations. Furthermore, we also found that IKBKE inhibitors activate the MAPK pathway, and EGFR-TKI resistant NSCLCs exhibit enhanced response to co-treatment with IKBKE inhibitors and MEK inhibitors.

Similar to lung cancer, pancreatic cancer is a challenging disease due to lack of direct inhibitors of the KRas mutations that are observed in more than 95% of pancreatic cancer patients. IKBKE/TBK1 pathway is important for KRas signaling, but the efficacy of IKBKE inhibitors in pancreatic cancers is not well studied. Here, we show that IKBKE is an important target in pancreatic cancers that regulates pancreatic cell viability, cell migration and cancer stem cells. Importantly, we provide mechanistic insights into the effects of IKBKE inhibitors on specific signaling pathways. We found that IKBKE inhibition results in significantly increased expression of RTKs, such as ErbB3 and IGF1-R, which increases ERK1/2 activation. Our findings provide support for novel combination strategies for pancreatic cancer.

Metastasis is a poor prognostic factor for ovarian cancer. Although patients with early stage ovarian cancer with no distal metastasis exhibit a 70% 5-year survival rate, Stage IV patients with distal metastasis exhibit only 20% 5-year survival rate. Hence, ongoing efforts are aimed at targeting the pathways that regulate metastasis in ovarian cancers. IKBKE is upregulated in ovarian cancer patients, and IKBKE expression is known to regulate the expression of several genes important for cell motility in ovarian cancers. IKBKE is also implicated in chemo-resistance in ovarian cancer, and siRNA knockdown of IKBKE increases sensitivity towards chemotherapy. However, the mechanistic role of IKBKE in chemo-resistance in ovarian cancer is not known. EphA2 is another well studied oncogene in ovarian cancer as 70% of ovarian cancer patients exhibit elevated levels of EphA2. By activating Focal Adhesion Kinases (FAK), EphA2 can induce metastasis in ovarian cancers. In this study, we show that the clinical PARP inhibitor Olaparib (AZD2281) activates IKBKE by EphA2-mediated tyrosine phosphorylation. We also found that phosphorylation of EphA2 or IKBKE expression can be used as a biomarker for olaparib resistance.

Together, these studies have shed light on novel mechanisms of regulation of IKBKE and their importance in therapy resistance. These observations form a strong pre-clinical proof-of-concept to study the inhibitors further in the clinic.