Despite progress in the development of effective treatments against T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), about 20% of patients still exhibit poor response to the current chemotherapeutic regimens and the cause of treatment failure in these patients remains largely unknown. In this study, we aimed at finding mechanisms that drive T-ALL cells resistant to chemotherapeutic agents. By screening etoposide sensitivity of a panel of T-ALL cell lines using DNA content and PARP cleavage as apoptosis markers, we identified an apoptosis-resistant cell line, Sup-T1. Western blot analysis and caspase activity assay showed that Sup-T1 cells were deficient in etoposide-induced activation of caspase-3 and caspase-9. In addition, mitochondrial cytochrome c release was not evident in etoposide-treated Sup-T1 cells. However, addition of exogenous cytochrome c in cell-free apoptosis reactions induced prominent caspase-3 activation, indicating that the chemoresistance observed in Sup-T1 cells was due to its insusceptibility to the drug-induced mitochondrial alterations. Analysis of the basal expression of the Bcl-2 family proteins revealed that the levels of Bcl-2 was higher in Sup-T1 cells, while Bax and BimEL levels were lower, when compared to etoposide-sensitive T-ALL cell lines. Gene silencing using antisense oligonucleotide to Bcl-2 and overexpression of Bax did not resensitize cells to etoposide-induced apoptosis. On the contrary, transient transfection of BimEL into Sup-T1 cells significantly restored etoposide sensitivity. Further experiments revealed that the lack of BimEL expression in Sup-T1 cells was due to the rapid degradation of newly-synthesized BimEL by the proteosomal pathway, as treatment of Sup-T1 cells with a proteosome inhibitor significantly restored the protein level of BimEL. Moreover, treatment with proteosome inhibitor resulted in mobility shift of BimEL, which was sensitive to phosphatase digestion. Furthermore, treatment of Sup-T1 cells with JNK inhibitor resulted in accumulation of BimEL, and pretreatment with JNK inhibitor restored sensitivity of Sup-T1 cells to etoposide-induced apoptosis, indicating that constitutive activation of the JNK pathway in Sup-T1 cells was responsible for promoting BimEL phosphorylation, and this may serve as a signal targeting BimEL to the proteosome for degradation. Altogether, our findings provide the first evidence that JNK activation correlates inversely with BimEL level by promoting its phosphorylation and degradation. This, in turn, reduces the sensitivity of T-ALL cells to chemotherapeutic agents.

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Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.