Although JAK2 inhibitor therapy improves MPN-associated splenomegaly and systemic symptoms, JAK2 inhibitor treatment does not significantly reduce or eliminate the MPN clone in most MPN patients. We therefore sought to characterize mechanisms by which MPN cells can persist despite chronic JAK2 inhibition. We performed saturation mutagenesis followed by next-generation sequencing in JAK2 mutant cells exposed to two different JAK2 inhibitors, INCB18424, a dual JAK1/JAK2 inhibitor, and JAK Inhibitor I, a pan-JAK inhibitor. Although we were able to identify candidate resistance alleles, these alleles were present in less than 50% of the total population. These data and the clinical experience with JAK2 inhibitors suggest that the failure of JAK2 inhibitors to reduce disease burden is not due to acquired drug resistance but rather due to persistent growth and signaling in the setting of chronic JAK2 kinase inhibition.
We therefore generated JAK2/MPL mutant JAK2-inhibitor persistent (JAKper) cell lines (SET-2, UKE-1, Ba/F3-MPLW515L). JAKper cell lines are able to survive and proliferate in the presence of JAK2 inhibitors including JAK Inhibitor I, INCB18424 and TG101348 without acquiring second-site resistance alleles and are also insensitive to other JAK inhibitors. Signaling studies revealed JAK-STAT signaling was reactivated in persistent cells at concentrations of inhibitor that completely abrogated signaling in naïve cells, and JAK2 phosphorylation was reactivated in JAK inhibitor persistent cells consistent with reactivation of the JAK-STAT pathway in JAKper cells despite inhibitor exposure. We hypothesized that JAK2 may be activated in trans by other JAK kinases, and found an increased association between activated JAK2 and JAK1/TYK2 consistent with activation of JAK2 in trans by other JAK kinases in JAKper cells.
We next assessed whether JAK inhibitor persistence was reversible. Withdrawal of JAK2 inhibitors from JAKper cells for 2 weeks led to resensitization such that JAKper resensitized cells were now sensitive to different JAK2 inhibitors regardless of previous exposure. Resensitization was associated with reversal of heterodimerization and loss of transactivation of JAK2 by JAK1 and TYK2. The reversible nature of JAK inhibitor persistence led us to hypothesize epigenetic alterations are responsible for JAK inhibitor insensitivity in JAKper cells; we observed increased expression of JAK2 at the mRNA and protein level in JAK2 inhibitor persistent cells compared to parental as well as resensitized cells. ChIP-PCR analysis of the JAK2 locus revealed a significant increase in H3K4-trimethylation and a reduction in H3K9 trimethylation in persistent cells compared to parental cells consistent with a change to a more active chromatin state at the JAK2 locus and increased JAK2 mRNA expression in persistent cells.
We next assessed whether the same phenomenon of JAK2 inhibitor persistence was observed in vivo. In a MPLW515L-mutant murine bone marrow transplant model of primary myelofibrosis, we observed increased JAK2 expression, increased JAK2 phosphorylation and JAK-inhibitor induced association between JAK1 and JAK2 in hematopoietic cells from INCB18424 treated mice. We next extended our findings to samples from patients treated with INCB18424. We identified 5 patients who had a significant clinical response and 5 patients without a significant clinical response as assessed by spleen size and JAK2V617F allele burden responses and measured JAK2 granulocyte mRNA expression before and during INCB18424 treatment. We found that JAK2 mRNA levels significantly increased in INCB18424 nonresponders compared to responders (p=0.05) suggesting this phenomenon is observed in cell lines, mouse models and primary samples.
Finally, we investigated whether JAKper cells remain JAK2 dependent. Studies with shRNA targeting JAK2 and pharmacologic studies using Hsp90 inhibitors that degrade JAK2 protein demonstrate that JAK2 inhibitor persistent cells remain dependent on JAK2 protein expression. Our data indicate that JAK2/MPL mutant cells persist in the presence of JAK2 kinase inhibitors through epigenetic alterations which reactivate signaling in persistent cells, and that therapies which lead to JAK2 degradation can be used to inhibit signaling and improve outcomes in patients with persistent disease despite chronic JAK2 inhibition.
Verstovsek:Incyte Corporation: Research Funding.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.