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J Natl Cancer Inst. 2008 Apr 16;100(8):580-95. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djn076. Epub 2008 Apr 8.

Mechanism of synergy of N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)retinamide and ABT-737 in acute lymphoblastic leukemia cell lines: Mcl-1 inactivation.

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Division of Hematology-Oncology, USC-CHLA Institute for Pediatric Clinical Research, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90027, USA.



ABT-737 is a pan-Bcl-2 inhibitor that has a wide range of single-agent activity against acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) cell lines and xenografts. A relationship between expression of myeloid cell leukemia 1 (Mcl-1), an antiapoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family of proteins, and resistance to ABT-737 has been reported for various cancers. The synthetic cytotoxic retinoid N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)retinamide (4-HPR) is known to generate reactive oxygen species (ROS), and ROS have been shown to activate c-Jun kinase (JNK), which in turn phosphorylates and inhibits Mcl-1. Thus, we investigated whether 4-HPR-mediated inactivation of Mcl-1 could act synergistically with ABT-737 to promote leukemia cell death.


Cytotoxicity was determined using the fluorescence-based DIMSCAN assay. Synergy was defined as a combination index (CIN) less than 1. The expression of Bcl-2 family messenger RNAs was measured by real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, and caspase activity was measured enzymatically. Changes in Bcl-2 family proteins and release of mitochondrial cytochrome c were detected by immunoblotting. ROS, apoptosis, mitochondrial membrane depolarization, and phospho-JNK were measured by flow cytometry. Gene silencing was by small interfering RNA (siRNA). All statistical tests were two-sided.


ABT-737 decreased Mcl-1 protein expression in ABT-737-sensitive ALL cell lines but not in ABT-737-resistant lines. Using the antioxidant ascorbic acid and siRNA-mediated knockdown of JNK, we showed that 4-HPR decreased Mcl-1 via ROS generation (that phosphorylates JNK) in ABT-737-resistant cell lines. Combining ABT-737 with 4-HPR enhanced the mitochondrial apoptotic cascade (percentage of cells with depolarized mitochondrial membrane at 6 hours, ABT-737 vs ABT-737 plus 4-HPR: 24.5% vs 45.5%, difference = 20.1%, 95% CI = 18.9% to 13.9%; P < .001) and caused caspase-dependent, synergistic multilog cytotoxicity in all seven ALL cell lines examined (mean CIN = 0.57, 95% CI = 0.37 to 0.87), with minimal cytotoxicity for normal lymphocytes.


An increase of Mcl-1 protein in response to ABT-737 is one mechanism of ABT-737 resistance that can be overcome by 4-HPR, resulting in synergistic cytotoxicity of ABT-737 combined with 4-HPR in ALL cell lines.

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