There is a critical need for new agents with novel therapeutic targets and improved safety profiles in high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in pediatric and adult populations. Phenotypic high-throughput chemical screens allow for discovery of small molecules that modulate complex phenotypes and provide lead compounds for novel therapies; however, identification of their mechanistically relevant targets remains a major experimental challenge. We applied a chemical genetics approach involving sequential unbiased high-throughput chemical and ultra-complex, genome-scale shRNA screens to address this challenge and identify novel agents in ALL. A cell-based phenotypic high-throughput chemical screen of 115,000 compounds identified 640 compounds that inhibited growth of one or both ALL cell lines with high-risk Mixed Lineage Leukemia (MLL) genetic abnormalities, but did not inhibit the growth of a cell line lacking MLL rearrangement. The most potent and selective 64 were tested on an expanded panel of eight human B-ALL cell lines to identify lead compound STF-118804. STF-118804 inhibited the growth of most B-ALL cell lines with high potency demonstrating IC50 values in the low nanomolar range. Leukemic samples from five pediatric ALL patients were also sensitive to STF-118804 in the low nanomolar range. STF-118804 displayed 5–10 fold more potency against most leukemias in comparison to cycling human (lineage-negative cord blood) and murine (c-kit+ bone marrow) progenitor cells, demonstrating a therapeutic index. STF-118804 displays distinctive cytotoxicity by inducing apoptosis without causing a phase-specific cell cycle arrest. To discover the molecular target of STF-118804, a functional genomic screen was performed to identify shRNAs that conferred sensitivity or resistance to STF-118804, utilizing an ultra-complex (∼25 shRNAs per gene) library targeting in total ∼9300 human genes and 1000s of negative control shRNAs. NAMPT was the most statistically significant gene to confer sensitivity to STF-118804, suggesting that STF-118804 functioned as a NAMPT inhibitor. NAMPT encodes nicotinamide phosphoribosyl transferase, a rate-limiting enzyme in the biosynthesis of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), a crucial cofactor in many biochemical processes. STF-118804 was confirmed as a novel class of NAMPT inhibitor through metabolic rescue, enzymatic, and genetic studies. STF-118804 displayed strong inhibitory activity in in vitro NAMPT enzymatic assays. Over-expression of wild-type or mutant NAMPT in cells indicated that STF-118804 cytotoxicity is a result of its ability to inhibit NAMPT, and that STF-118804 does not have significant off-target effects on cell viability. The potential efficacy of STF-118804 in vivo was assessed in an orthotopic xenograft model of ALL. Sublethally irradiated immunodeficient mice were transplanted with human ALL cells engineered to constitutively express firefly luciferase. Dosing of STF-118804 was initiated two weeks post-transplant when ALL cells had engrafted and bioluminescent signal was detectable. Mice treated with STF-118804 showed regression of leukemia by bioimaging and significantly extended survival. The leukemia initiating cell (LIC) frequency in STF-118804 treated mice was significantly lower (∼8 fold) than vehicle treated mice, showing that STF-118804 was effective in reducing LICs. In summary, tandem high-throughput screening identified a highly-specific, potent, and structurally novel small molecule inhibitor of NAMPT that is active in ALL. Tandem high throughput screening using chemical and ultra-complex shRNA libraries provides a rapid chemical genetics approach for seamless progression from small molecule lead identification to target discovery and validation.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.