High-risk myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are characterized by the constitutive activation of the anti-apoptotic transcription factor NF-kappaB, via the activation of the IKK complex. We show that constitutive activation of the receptor tyrosine kinase Flt3 is responsible for IKK activation and this activation of the NF-kappaB pathway was found to involve a not yet described phosphorylation of the IKK and IkBa complex involving tyrosine residues compared to serine residues in the classical NF-kappaB pathway. Chemical inhibition or knockdown of Flt3 with small interfering RNAs abolished NF-kappaB activation in MDS and AML cell lines, as well as in primary CD34+ bone marrow cells from patients, causing mitochondrial apoptosis. Epistatic analysis involving the simultaneous inhibition of Flt3 and IKK indicated that both kinases act via the same anti-apoptotic pathway. An IKK2 mutant with a constitutive kinase activity and a plasma membrane-tethered mutant of NEMO that activates IKK1/2 prevented the cytocidal action of Flt3 inhibition. IKK2 and Flt3 physically associated in MDS and AML cells and Flt3 inhibition caused the release of IKK2 from a preferential association with the plasma membrane. Flt3 inhibition only killed CD34+ bone marrow cells from high-risk MDS and AML patients, in correlation with the blast numbers and the NF-kappaB activity, yet had no lethal effect on healthy CD34+ cells or cells from low-risk MDS. These results suggest that Flt3 inhibitors might exert an anti-neoplastic effect in high-risk MDS and AML through inhibition of constitutive NF kappaB activation.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.