Tipping the Noxa/Mcl-1 balance overcomes ABT-737 resistance in chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Jacqueline M Tromp, Christian R Geest, Esther C W Breij, Judith A Elias, Jacoline van Laar, Dieuwertje M Luijks, Arnon P Kater, Tim Beaumont, Marinus H J van Oers, Eric Eldering
Clinical Cancer Research 2012 January 15, 18 (2): 487-98

PURPOSE: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells in lymph nodes (LN), from which relapses are postulated to originate, display an antiapoptotic profile in contrast to CLL cells from peripheral blood (PB). The BH3 mimetic ABT-737 antagonizes the antiapoptotic proteins Bcl-X(L) and Bcl-2 but not Mcl-1 or Bfl-1. Previously, it was shown that CD40-stimulated CLL cells were resistant to ABT-737. We aimed to define which antiapoptotic proteins determine resistance to ABT-737 in CLL and whether combination of known antileukemia drugs and ABT-737 was able to induce apoptosis of CD40-stimulated CLL cells.

EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: To mimic the LN microenvironment, PB lymphocytes of CLL patients were cultured on feeder cells expressing CD40L and treated with ABT-737 with or without various drugs. In addition, we carried out overexpression or knockdown of pro- and antiapoptotic proteins in immortalized primary B cells.

RESULTS: Upon CD40 stimulation patient-specific variations in ABT-737 sensitivity correlated with differences in levels of Mcl-1 and its antagonist Noxa. Knockdown of Noxa, as well as Mcl-1 overexpression, corroborated the importance of the Noxa/Mcl-1 ratio in determining the response to ABT-737. Inhibition of NF-κB resulted in increased Noxa levels and enhanced sensitivity to ABT-737. Interestingly, increasing the Noxa/Mcl-1 ratio, by decreasing Mcl-1 (dasatinib and roscovitine) or increasing Noxa levels (fludarabine and bortezomib), resulted in synergy with ABT-737.

CONCLUSIONS: Thus, the Noxa/Mcl-1 balance determines sensitivity to ABT-737 in CD40-stimulated CLL cells. These data provide a rationale to investigate the combination of drugs which enhance the Noxa/Mcl-1 balance with ABT-737 to eradicate CLL in chemoresistant niches.

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