Despite improvements in surgical and medical treatments, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) still represents one of the deadliest malignancies. With a five-year overall survival (OS) still under 10% and an increasing incidence over the last decade, PDAC is projected to be the second leading cause of cancer-related death by 2030 [1
Late diagnosis and rapid progression of the disease together with resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy contribute to PDAC dismal prognosis. Moreover, PDAC is characterized by a dense fibrotic stroma, which represents a physical barrier for therapies and also has an established role in promoting cancer progression. Gemcitabine has been the mainstay of treatment of both resected and metastatic PDAC for many years while more recently, the combination regimens of either 5-fluorouracil (5-FU)/leucovorin with irinotecan and oxaliplatin (scheme FOLFIRINOX), or gemcitabine and nanoparticle albumin-bound paclitaxel (nab-paclitaxel) have become the standard of care in different settings on the basis of phase III clinical trials showing superior outcomes with either of the combinations over gemcitabine alone [2
]. This scenario highlights the need for identification of biomarkers associated with disease prognosis with utility to select patients for different treatments.
Caveolin-1 (Cav-1) is the principal structural component of caveolae (flask-shaped invaginations of plasma membrane) and plays a key role in cellular endocytosis, lipid homeostasis, and signal transduction, serving both to compartmentalize and regulate cellular signaling [5
]. Caveolae and caveolins had a crucial role in various human pathobiological conditions, in particular cardiovascular and neoplastic disease, as reported by Zhang et al. in Caveolin-deficient mouse models [6
]. Cav-1 is upregulated in different cancers, including PDAC, lung cancer, and breast cancer, and several studies have demonstrated an association between Cav-1 expression and invasion, distant metastasis, and poor prognosis [7
Furthermore, Cav-1 expression has been correlated with resistance to radiotherapy and chemotherapy in PDAC cells [10
]. In particular, tumor Cav-1 knock-down significantly reduced beta1 integrin expression and Akt phosphorylation, induced Caspase 3- and Caspase 8-dependent apoptosis, and enhanced the radiosensitivity of 3D human pancreatic cell cultures [12
Interestingly, recent studies have shown that Cav-1 may play a dual role in PDAC biology depending on the site of expression of the protein, tumor type, and stage of the disease. In particular, while its expression in cancer cells has been associated with an aggressive phenotype and poor prognosis, the loss of Cav-1 in the tumor stroma has been associated with chemoresistance and increased tumor growth [13
Pre-clinical studies have shown that Cav-1 is critical for the uptake of albumin as well as nab-paclitaxel in PDAC cells, causing a subsequent apoptotic response in tumor cells in vitro. Moreover, Cav-1 expression correlates positively with sensitivity to this drug, representing a promising predictive biomarker for nab-paclitaxel [14
In this study, we investigated the prognostic impact of Cav-1 expression in a cohort of locally advanced or metastatic PDAC patients treated with different first-line chemotherapy regimens, including gemcitabine plus nab-paclitaxel, FOLFIRINOX scheme, and gemcitabine monotherapy. We also assessed the predictive value of Cav-1 in patients treated with gemcitabine and nab-paclitaxel.
PDAC is one of the leading causes of cancer mortality in developed countries and one of the most lethal tumors worldwide in both sexes, with a higher prevalence in men. The incidence and mortality rates are correlated with increasing age and almost 90% of all deaths are registered in those over 55 years old [15
Despite the growing knowledge about its biology, therapeutic management of PDAC patients achieved relatively modest results.
Partial explanation of this failure has to be traced back to the lack of other treatment options besides chemotherapy. Only a small proportion of patients who detain the germline breast-cancer susceptibility gene 2 (BRCA2) variant associated PDAC, accounting for a percentage ranging from 4–10% in the various case series, actually have the ability to use Olaparib, a Poly ADP Ribose Polymerase (PARP) inhibitor, as 1st-line treatment maintenance after platinum-based induction chemotherapy [16
]. Microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) status represents an even smaller group of patients that could derive benefit from checkpoint inhibitors (namely pembrolizumab monotherapy) [17
Treatment with different targeted therapies in an unstratified population of PDAC patients was associated with marginal improvement in survival, if any. For example, Moore et al. demonstrated a statistically significant improvement of survival using the association between gemcitabine plus erlotinib, a human epidermal growth factor receptor type 1 (HER1/EGFR) inhibitor, in unresectable, locally advanced, or metastatic pancreatic cancers that often overexpress HER1/EGFR [18
]. On the other hand, Faloppi et al. underlined the prognostic and predictive negative role of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) serum levels in advanced pancreatic cancer patients treated with sorafenib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor [19
However, the lack of proper histological specimens in the majority of patients makes molecular analysis of tumor tissues more difficult to perform. Particularly in patients without metastatic involvement, obtaining proper histologic tissue becomes a major issue, due to the anatomical location of the tumor and the pancreas itself. Indeed, a series of published papers have looked into other molecular determinants of PDAC progression, such as circulating tumor cells (CTCs), exosomes, and cell-free tumor deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), to overcome this limitation [20
Most of these studies have focused on molecular targets that have an already well-established role, with the assumption that the same molecular targets should have the same pathogenic role in PDAC as in other tumor types. This assumption has however proven wrong in most situations, prompting the need to clarify the role of established molecular markers specifically in PDAC patients.
Caveolin-1 (Cav-1) expression has been relatively recently described as an interesting molecular factor with a well-known mechanism of action: it is primarily involved in the formation of invaginations of the cell membrane that are crucial for vesicle formation and intra- and extra-cellular vesicle-mediated signaling. In particular, Boscher et al. showed the role of caveolin both as a promoter and inhibitor of different signaling pathways, assessing the impact of membrane domain localization on caveolin functionality in cell proliferation, survival, apoptosis, and migration [23
There are a series of published papers that have associated the expression of Cav-1 to increased sensitivity to chemotherapy, and thus better prognosis. Most of these studies have been conducted in patients with breast and lung cancer, treatments which involve chemotherapy drugs that have to be internalized to be active. For breast cancer, nab-paclitaxel have been associated with highest intracellular concentration and activity whenever higher levels of Cav-1 expression were observed [24
]. In particular, in metastatic breast cancer, Ricci et al. evidenced that higher tumor and lower stromal Cav-1 levels were significantly correlated with a longer PFS of nab-paclitaxel and gemcitabine [26
]. Regarding lung cancer, in particular for advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), Herrera et al. demonstrated the survival improvement using nab-paclitaxel in combination with carboplatin, especially in Cav-1 positive patients [27
Even though this might have been proven to be true in breast and lung cancer, our results seem to suggest that in PDAC patients, high levels of expression of Cav-1 might have a completely opposite effect. Indeed, higher levels of Cav-1 seemed to be detected in metastases rather than in primary tumor histological samples, thus leading to the assumption that Cav-1 expression might change based on tumor growth pattern. Higher levels would be present in tumors that have a higher metastatic behavior. Albeit our population of patients received a heterogeneous number of first-line treatment options, patients treated with Gemcitabine+Nab-Paclitaxel did not have better survival compared with other treatments such as FOLFIRINOX, despite having been used in patients with high Cav-1 expression.
Campos et al. reported that Cav-1 might have different roles during pancreatic cancer progression, with a role as tumor suppressor factor in the earliest stages of PDAC development, but also as a promoter of enhanced aggressiveness in later stages of PDAC development [28
]. Similar results have also been reported in prostate cancer, particularly in castration-resistant metastatic prostate cancer cells [29
]. The overexpression of Cav-1 seems to be associated with low degree of differentiation, advanced clinical stage, and poor survival in prostate cancers [30
]. High Cav-1 expression was also associated with a more aggressive behavior in melanoma cells [31
] and significantly shorter survival in lung cancer patients. Particularly, Zhan et al. demonstrated that higher Cav-1 expression correlated with poorer lymph nodes stage and higher pathological TNM stage in lung adenocarcinoma (AC) patients, which was not found in lung squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) patients, impacting on prognosis [33
Cav-1 expression would then be associated with a “double-edged” effect. In earlier stages of tumor development, it would act as a tumor suppressor factor, whereas in latter stages of tumor development it would help in enhancing tumor aggressiveness. For example, in breast cancer, stromal expression of Cav-1 has been associated with more aggressive behavior, impacting on metastatic spread and survival [34
Indeed, looking at OS of patients enrolled in our analysis, higher levels of Cav-1 expression were associated with statistically significantly worse overall survival outcomes. This was maintained in spite of different regimens of treatment and patients’ clinical conditions at the beginning of first line treatment.
Based on these data, it would be interesting to assess whether Cav-1 expression, rather than just being used as a negative prognostic factor, could be used instead as a potential target for treatment. Incandronate for example, a bisphosphonate derivative, was found to be able to determine reduction of Cav-1 expression by inhibition of crucial steps in isoprenoid biosynthesis pathway leading to reduced production of geranylgeranylated-proteins [35
]. Fenretinide, a synthetic derivative of retinoic acid, led to the down-regulation of caveolin-1 expression at the protein level in MG-63 and HOS osteosarcoma and A-172,LI,CRS-A2 glioblastoma cells, decreasing tumor aggressiveness and restoring chemosensitivity. [36
Other Cav-1 inhibitors are currently used as drugs labeled for other indications, such as lovastatin, a common anti-cholesterol drug, and celecoxib, a rather commonly used not-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Guruswamy et al. reported that the anti-proliferative effect on colon cancer cell line HCT-116 determined by use of celecoxib and lovastatin was due to reduced Caveolin-1 expression in treated cells and the reduced activation of down-stream signaling pathways [37
]. These promising preclinical data suggest that Cav-1 inhibitors may improve the efficacy of treatment of advanced PDAC and could be evaluated in clinical trials in association with chemotherapy.
Our study has several limitations. For example, tissue from both the primary tumor and metastatic site was not available in any patient, so we could not compare Cav-1 expression between primary tumor and metastases in the same patient. Moreover, tumor grading was available only for a few samples included in the study, so we could not assess the relationship between grading and Cav-1 expression.