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Amit Budhraja, PhD, (left)
and Joseph Opferman, PhD
Photo from Seth Dixon/
St. Jude Children’s
Research Hospital

An antimalarial drug and a BH3 mimetic have demonstrated promise for treating BCR-ABL-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), according to work published in Clinical Cancer Research.

Investigators found the widely used antimalarial dihydroartemisinin (DHA) sensitized BCR-ABL+ ALL to the BH3 mimetic navitoclax (formerly ABT-263).

The combination therapy had a synergistic effect on mouse and human BCR-ABL+ leukemic cell death and extended the lives of mice with BCR-ABL+ ALL.

“Survival rates for children and adults with this leukemia still lag, highlighting the urgent need for new therapies,” said study author Joseph Opferman, PhD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Our findings suggest that combining DHA with ABT-263 can significantly improve treatment response.”

As opposed to mice that received navitoclax alone, there was no evidence of navitoclax resistance in mice treated with navitoclax and DHA.

The investigators determined that DHA worked by repressing production of MCL-1, a protein that is elevated in many cancers and helps malignant cells resist BH3 mimetics.

“MCL-1 is widely recognized as an important survival molecule in many normal cell types as well as cancer,” Dr Opferman said. “MCL-1 inhibitors are in development, but none are currently available for treating patients.”

“And because MCL-1 is essential for proper functioning of many normal cell types, there is concern about potential toxicity. We sought to identify drugs that are available now to augment treatment of BCR-ABL+ ALL.”

The search for a drug to sensitize BCR-ABL+ ALL to navitoclax and related compounds led Dr Opferman and his colleagues to DHA. A drug screen showed that DHA killed BCR-ABL+ ALL cells from mice.

The investigators showed how DHA induced expression of the protein CHOP, which is a key regulator of the endoplasmic reticulum stress pathway in cells. CHOP expression triggered the stress pathway in BCR-ABL+ ALL cells from mice and led to the suppression of MCL-1.

“MCL-1 has a short half-life, so the cell’s MCL-1 stores are rapidly depleted if the protein’s translation is repressed,” said study author Amit Budhraja, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr Opferman’s lab.

Now, the investigators are studying the mechanism in human BCR-ABL+ leukemic cells as well as in other cancers.

“Identifying the mechanism will allow us to study the pathway in detail for other points to target for anticancer drug development,” Dr Opferman said.

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