The Villanueva Laboratory
The Villanueva laboratory is actively studying the molecular mechanisms mediating drug resistance in melanoma, aiming at designing effective therapies that will overcome it. The lab has extensively investigated the role of the RAF/MEK and PI3K/mTOR pathways as therapeutic targets and the mechanisms underlying resistance to inhibitors that block these signaling cascades. More recently, the team is focusing on identifying new targets or vulnerabilities that can be therapeutically exploited in NRAS mutant melanoma, a tumor type in dire need of new treatments.
Hsin-Yi Chen, Ph.D.
Adam Guterres, Ph.D.
Mechanisms of Drug Resistance in Melanoma
The Villanueva lab has developed pre-clinical models that show how melanoma gains resistance to BRAF and MEK inhibitors. Using these models, we have demonstrated that melanoma cells treated with RAF inhibitors bypass the effects of the drugs by activating alternative signaling pathways, including RTKs, PI3K/mTOR and STAT3. As melanoma is a highly heterogeneous disease, multiple mechanisms of resistance are likely to arise in patients. The lab is using an array of biochemical and genetic approaches to identify additional mechanisms of drug resistance and testing combinations of clinically relevant inhibitors targeting the resistant pathways. The goal is to identify the best combination therapies that can overcome drug resistance or that could be used as salvage therapies for tumors refractory to current therapies.
Developing Molecular Approaches to Target NRAS Mutant Melanomas
NRAS is a poorly characterized RAS family member, and the biology of NRAS mutant tumors remain inadequately understood. There are very limited treatment options for patients carrying NRAS mutations, which are present in more than 25 percent of all melanomas. As targeting NRAS directly has thus far not been possible, the aim of the lab is to eradicate this type of tumors by blocking critical RAS effectors or pathways that are essential for tumor survival. We have identified a number of non-oncogene dependencies that are critical for survival of melanoma cells including BRD4, TERT and the ribosomal serine/threonine kinase S6K2. The lab is further investigating their role in melanoma and evaluating the impact of blocking their activity on tumor initiation, maintenance and survival using physiologically relevant models.