While some patients with acute leukemia are cured, for many subsets of patients current therapeutic strategies are not adequate. Novel therapeutic approaches are needed for patients with higher risk leukemias, including T-ALL and AML. We and others identified Wee1 as a potential target in AML cells using RNAi screening. We have validated chemosensitization to cytarabine by genetic and pharmacologic inhibition of Wee1 in AML cell lines and primary patient samples ex vivo. A Wee1 inhibitor, MK1775, is in clinical development. We sought to further our findings with a wider range of conventional anti-leukemia agents, to determine whether the functionality of p53 influences chemosensitization, and to determine the tolerability and efficacy of MK1775 in combination with cytarabine in a mouse model of leukemia.

We have found that MK1775 synergistically inhibits proliferation of the T-ALL Jurkat cell line with several antimetabolite chemotherapeutics including cytarabine, 6-thioguanine, and methotrexate. In contrast, MK1775 does not sensitize Jurkats to doxorubicin or etoposide, suggesting specific sensitization to antimetabolites. The addition of MK1775 enhances the antimetabolite induced apoptosis, as measured by Annexin V/7-AAD staining, and PARP cleavage measured by Western blotting. As expected, the addition of MK1775 enhances DNA damage induced by cytarabine as measured by γH2AX staining and flow cytometry, although preliminary data suggest that this is not the only mechanism of enhanced cell death, as a substantial proportion of cleaved PARP+ cells does not stain for γH2AX. In addition, we have found that AML cell lines with both wild-type and mutated TP53 are sensitive to chemosensitization by Wee1 inhibition. Furthermore, in isogenic models of p53 dysfunction, we have found that the functionality of p53 does not influence chemosensitization. Lastly, in an aggressive mouse model of AML, we observed enhanced disease control and survival in mice treated with MK1775 and ARA-C as compared to ARA-C alone. Hematotoxicity associated with treatment was related to the duration of combination therapy, but was tolerated well with intermittent dosing.

Taken together, these data indicate that Wee1 inhibition may enhance the efficacy of several clinically relevant anti-leukemia agents, particularly the antimetabolites, but not topoisomerase inhibitors. Further, they suggest caution about the use of p53 mutation as a biomarker predictive of response to Wee1 inhibition. Moreover, we show that the addition of MK1775 to cytarabine is tolerable and more effective than cytarabine alone in vivo. Ongoing studies are aimed at better understanding the mechanism of combinatorial effect and to determine whether combination therapy is more efficacious than single agent therapy in xenograft models of leukemia. These data provide justification for early phase clinical trials of MK1775 in combination with antimetabolites in patients with high risk acute leukemia.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.