The blockade of Bcr-Abl signaling suppresses cellular growth and induces cell death in Bcr-Abl+ cells. While they are known to promote caspase-mediated apoptosis, it remains unclear whether caspase-independent cell death-inducing mechanisms are also triggered. Here we assessed the regulatory mechanisms for cellular survival and death of Bcr-Abl+ leukemias more precisely, using a novel Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase inhibitor, INNO-406 (formerly NS-187) which is more selective and 25-55-fold more active than imatinib (Kimura S, Blood 2005), in four CML-derived Bcr-Abl+ cell lines (K562, KT-1, BV173 and MYL), Ba/F3 harboring wild type bcr-abl (Ba/F3/wt bcr-abl), and in vivo CML mouse model. INNO-406 induces apoptosis in all lines examined, as were demonstrated by typical apoptotic morphology, loss of mitochondrial outer membrane potential (reduction of DiOC6 uptake), increase of cells in subG1 fraction by propidium iodide (PI) staining, DNA fragmentation and caspase-3 activation. However, when we inhibit caspase activity by zVAD-fmk (zVAD), a pan-caspase inhibitor, two modes of cell death execution were observed. In K562, KT-1 and BV173 cells treated with INNO-406, zVAD almost completely prevented apoptosis (i.e. showing atypical feature for apoptosis, no DNA fragmentation and no accumulation of subG1 fraction), with cell death resulting from morphologically non-apoptotic, so-called caspase-independent necrosis-like cell death (CIND). While, in MYL and Ba/F3/wt bcr-abl cells, despite the sufficient inhibition of caspases’ activity, the inhibition of the cell death by zVAD was only partial and these cell lines still underwent apoptosis (i.e. showing DNA fragmentation and the accumulation of subG1 population), suggesting the presence of alter cell death pathway which is caspase-independent apoptosis (CIA) in MYL and Ba/F3/wt bcr-abl. The propensity towards CIND or CIA in cells was strongly associated with cellular dependency on apoptosome-mediated caspase activity, that is CIND with a high apoptosome activity potential while CIA with low. Freshly isolated leukemic cell samples from Bcr-Abl+ leukemia patients also had either low or high apoptosome activity potential. Moreover, cells undergoing CIND exhibited hallmarks of autophagy (i.e. the autophagosome formation, punctate formations of LC3 and the accumulation of LC3-II isoform), suggested the participation of autophagy in response to Bcr-Abl blockade. Inhibition of autophagy with chloroquine enhanced INNO-406-induced cell death, which indicates that the autophagic response of the tumor cells is protective. While, in vivo CML model, INNO-406 treatment increased apoptotic cells regardless of the caspase-3 activation, further implicating the involvement of caspase-independent cell death regulatory pathway in vivo in primary Bcr-Abl+ leukemic cells. These findings suggest new insights into the biology and therapy of Bcr-Abl+ leukemias.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.