We recently reported that the induction of polyploidization of malignant megakaryocytes shows great promise as a new therapy for acute leukemia. Polyploidization inducers such as dimethylfasudil (diMF) and MLN8237, both of which target Aurora A kinase (AURKA), induce proliferation arrest, polyploidization, expression of megakaryocyte differentiation markers and apoptosis of leukemic megakaryocytes in vitro and in vivo. Since megakaryocytes in primary myelofibrosis (PMF) show impaired polyploidization and maturation, and likely directly contribute to the disease, we predicted that polyploidization inducers would provide a new therapeutic strategy. To determine the effect of these compounds on the growth of MPN cells, we first treated the JAK2 V617F mutant megakaryocytic SET2 cell line with varying doses of MLN8237 and diMF. Both compounds effectively and dose dependently inhibited proliferation, induced polyploidization and upregulation of lineage specific markers CD41 and CD42, and increased apoptosis. Furthermore, MLN8237 synergized with ruxolitinib to induce apoptosis of the SET2 cells and also potently induced growth arrest of JAK2 inhibitor persistent SET2 cells. We observed a similar polyploidization and differentiating activity of MLN8237 and diMF on megakaryocytes derived from primary human PMF progenitors. The ability of these agents to induce polyploidization was specific, as the non-megakaryocyte fractions of the cultures were not affected.

Next, we assayed the activity of polyploidization inducers on progression of MPNs in two mouse models: JAK2V617F conditional knockin mice and mice engrafted with MPLW515L expressing bone marrow progenitors. Of note, spleens from both mouse models displayed a robust increase in both total and phosphorylated forms of AURKA relative to control animals, further suggesting that AURKA is a rational target in this disease. We first assayed the activities of MLN8237 and diMF in the MPLW515L bone marrow transplantation model. Recipient mice develop a rapid MPN characterized by leukocytosis, thrombocytosis and bone marrow fibrosis. Both MLN8237 and diMF reduced the disease burden, as evidenced by significant reductions in the liver and spleen weights, white cell counts and platelet counts. Both compounds also led to a significant decrease of fibrosis in the bone marrow, diminished infiltration of megakaryocytes and granulocytes in the liver, and a profound reduction in the numbers of megakaryocytes within the spleen. Moreover, plasma levels of TGF-β a known myelofibrogenic cytokine, were decreased by more than 3-fold by the drug treatment. Both diMF and MLN8237 led to selective polyploidization of megakaryocytes in the spleen as well as marked reductions in the levels of p-AURKA. Of note, neither agent affected the extent of phosphorylation of STAT3 or STAT5. Therefore, we tested whether the combined use of a JAK inhibitor and a polyploidy inducer would show enhanced activity in vivo. Indeed, the combination of MLN8237 and ruxolitinib led to greater reductions in tumor burden in the MPLW515L mouse model than either agent alone. Similar results were obtained using the JAK2V617F knock-in model.

To further validate our conclusion that AURKA is a target in PMF, we infected Aurkafl/fl floxed bone marrow progenitors with MPLW515L and transplanted the cells to irradiated recipients. Excision of both alleles of Aurka by Cre mediated recombination completely resolved the disease, while heterozygous deletion of Aurka significantly reduced the disease burden, in a manner similar to treatment with MLN8237. Given that heterozygous deletion of Aurka does not alter normal hematopoiesis in mice, the fact that a 50% reduction in kinase expression was associated with a significant decrease in disease burden suggests that there is an effective therapeutic window in which AURKA inhibitors will be effective against MPN while sparing normal hematopoiesis.

Although JAK inhibitors provide symptomatic relief, it is becoming clear that they are not curative. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop new agents to use in combination with JAK inhibitors. Our data reveal that inducing polyploidization and differentiation of dysplastic megakaryocytes in PMF ameliorates features of the disease both in vitro and in vivo. These results support the initiation of clinical studies that combine a JAK inhibitor with an AURKA inhibitor.


Crispino:Sanofi: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.