Upregulation of alternative proteolytic pathways characterizes malignant cells that overcome proteasome inhibition in vitro. The proteasome inhibitor Bortezomib (Velcade®), which selectively targets only one of the three active subunits of the proteasome, has shown limited activity in AML. Ritonavir (Norvir®) is an aspartate protease inhibitor used in intensive HIV-therapy, where therapeutic levels of 5–20μM are reached with an oral dose of 1200 mg/d. A cytotoxic effect of Ritonavir against malignant cells due to proteasome inhibition has been suggested (Gaedicke et al., Cancer Research 62, December 1, 2002). We have here tested the effect of Ritonavir on AML cells, both as single agent and in combination with Bortezomib. Ritonavir induced cytotoxic death in AML cell lines and primary AML blasts with an IC50 of 30–40 μM in vitro. The combination of Ritonavir and Bortezomib was synergistic in vitro, i.e. subtoxic concentrations of Ritonavir at 10 μM combined with subtoxic Bortezomib 5–10 nM induced robust cytotoxicity in AML cell lines and freshly isolated primary AML blasts. Using a novel chemical probe that for the first time allows to visualize the individual activity of proteasomal subunits in intact AML blasts, we show that Velcade selectively abrogates β5 proteasomal activity at 20 nM in AML cells, as expected. Ritonavir, by contrast, had no effect on active proteasomal subunits up to 50 μM. Thus, the synergistic effect of Ritonavir with Bortezomib on AML cells is not due to inhibition of the same proteasomal target by both drugs, but more likely mediated by blocking alternative proteolytic pathways. One individual patient aged 72 years with an early relaps of AML was treated with Ritonavir 400–600 mg/d p.o.. During treatment, the absolute leukocyte count dropped from 24000/μl to 8000/μl while the ANC raised from 185/μl to 1530/μl. Ritonavir was withdrawn due to diarrhoea and abdominal cramps, leading to a sharp increase in peripheral blood blasts and leukocytes. Retreatment with Ritonavir at a reduced dose of 200 mg/d combined with Velcade 1mg/sqm was tolerated and stabilized leukocyte counts for a short period of time. We conclude that Ritonavir has activity against chemotherapy-refractory AML in vitro and in vivo. The combination of Velcade and Ritonavir might allow to synergistically target the proteolytic machinery of AML blasts with tolerable toxicity.

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