Researchers Verastem Inc. have published a study that focuses on discovering and developing drugs to treat cancer by the targeted killing of cancer stem cells.

The paper describes the finding that loss of the tumour suppressor merlin predicts for increased responsiveness to drugs targeting cancer stem cells through inhibition of focal adhesion kinase (FAK). Since merlin loss is particularly prevalent in mesothelioma (approximately 50% of patients), the efficacy of FAK inhibition was demonstrated in several cellular and in vivo mesothelioma models.

The publication further describes the strong tumour-initiating capability of mesothelioma cancer stem cells and the observation that the standard of care agents pemetrexed and cisplatin augment cancer stem cells. In contrast, FAK inhibition effectively reduces cancer stem cells in preclinical models of mesothelioma.

“The data demonstrates that FAK inhibition is particularly effective in models of merlin-negative mesothelioma,” said Jonathan Pachter, Ph.D., Verastem Head of Research.

“These results build upon key findings published earlier this year by our collaborators at Fox Chase Cancer Centre which demonstrated that merlin loss drives the development of highly aggressive malignant mesothelioma which is enriched for cancer stem cells.

Accordingly, in a merlin-negative mesothelioma patient-derived tumour model, FAK inhibitor treatment as maintenance therapy prolonged the inhibition of tumour growth following treatment with pemetrexed and cisplatin.”

To find out more information about focal adhesion kinase (FAK) and how it could inhibit mesothelioma cancer stem cells, the Science Translational Medicine paper can be accessed at