Chemotherapy resistance remains a major challenge in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Besides the P-glycoprotein efflux of chemotherapeutics, additional cellular factors may contribute to drug resistance in AML. c- Jun N-terminal Kinase (JNK) is a protein kinase activated after exposure of cells to chemotherapeutic agents. Recently, studies in solid tumours have associated chemoresistance with failure of cancer cells to activate JNK. We asked whether drug resistance in AML is also attributed to intrinsic failure of the AML blasts to activate JNK. In vitro treatment of U937 AML cell line with anthracyclines induced a rapid and robust JNK phosphorylation and apoptosis. In contrast, the anthracyline-resistant derivative U937R cells showed no JNK activation after exposure to anthracyclines, also at doses that resulted in high accumulation of the drug within the cells. Inhibition of JNK in drug-sensitive U937 cells made them resistant to anthracyclines. First, JNK1-siRNA transfected U937 cells exhibited a 50.4% and 61.3% reduced daunorubicin- (DNR, 1μM 24hr) and doxorubicin- (DOX, 1.5 μM 24hr) induced apoptosis respectively; as compared to empty vector or untransfected U937 cells (P< 0.001). Second, pretreatment of U937 cells with the 420116 cell-permeable JNK inhibitor (1 μM) reduced to a less but yet significant extent DNR-induced apoptosis as compared to cells treated with a negative control peptide (P = 0.013<0.05). On the other hand, selective restoration of the inactive JNK pathway in resistant U937R cells by transfection with a mutant form of the SEK1/MKK4 upstream activator of JNK sensitized U937R cells to anthracyclines, compared to empty vector transfected cells (3.3-fold increase in DNR-induced apoptosis, 1μM DNR, 24hr and 3.1-fold increase in DOX-induced apoptosis, 1.5μM DOX, 24hr). Furthermore, we assessed the activation of JNK pathway in 29 primary AML bone marrow samples after short term (30-60 min) in vitro exposure to DNR (1 μM) and correlated it with clinical data. We found a strong correlation between the in vitro pharmacodymanic changes of phospho-JNK levels in AML primary blasts and the response of the AML patients to standard induction chemotherapy (P = 0.012). In addition, the drug-induced JNK activation pattern correlated with AML evolving from antecedent MDS (P = 0.017) and patient age (P = 0.046). In summary, our in vitro and in vivo results suggest that JNK activation failure is another mechanism of anthracycline resistance in AML. Elucidating the ultimate mechanisms leading to JNK suppression in chemoresistant AML may be of major therapeutic value.

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Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.