In primary myelofibrosis patients, somatic mutations such as JAK2V617F(JAKVF) and MPLW515 that activate JAK-STAT signaling are often seen. Small-molecule JAK2 inhibitors are effective for organomegaly and constitutional symptoms, but the drugs have little effect on BM fibrosis. To clarify the mechanism by which MPN cells with JAK2 mutations cause BM fibrosis, we compared the gene expression patterns of LinSca1+ BM cells in JAK2VF transgenic mice (JAK2VF-TG), which develop myelofibrosis (MF), with that in WT mice. We found that TGFb1 and HOXB4, the target genes of transcription factor USF1 were highly expressed. TGFβ1, which is secreted by hematopoietic cells, is essential for fibrotic development in a murine model of MF (Chagraoui et al. Blood 2002), and increased expression of HOXB4 enhances human megakaryocytic development (Zhong et al. BBRC 2010).

To investigate the mechanism of the high expression of these genes downstream of JAK2 signaling, USF1 and a cytokine receptor gene (MPL, EPOR or CSF3R) were co-transfected into 293T cells along with either a TGF-β1/HOXB4 promoter-driven or a STAT5 response element-driven luciferase reporter. Stimulation of MPL with TPO enhanced USF1 transcriptional activity about 3 fold, but stimulation of EPOR with EPO or of CSF3R with G-CSF did not change this activity. However, stimulation with any of the 3 types of cytokines enhanced STAT5 transcriptional activity. JAK2VF upregulated USF1 and STAT5 much more highly than JAK2WT without TPO stimulation. This USF1 upregulation specifically to TPO/MPL signaling was suppressed by a dominant negative mutant of USF1, JAK2 inhibitors (AG490, NS-018) or MEK inhibitors (U0126, PD325901). Inhibition of PI3K or p38MAPK did not affect the USF1 activation. Co-treatment with JAK2 and MEK inhibitors showed a synergistic effect in blocking both USF1 upregulation and STAT5 activation induced by JAK2VF.

Next, we tested the MEK inhibitor, PD325901, in combination with the JAK2 inhibitor, NS-018, in the JAK2VF-TG mice. After disease was established 12 weeks after birth, JAK2VF-TG mice were divided into the following 4 groups: vehicle control; PD325901 monotherapy; NS-018 monotherapy; and combined therapy. PD325901 (5 mg/kg) and NS-018 (50 mg/kg) were orally administered once and twice daily, respectively. After 12 weeks of treatment, we evaluated the effect on BM fibrosis. The grading of MF in each group (n = 5-6) was as follows: vehicle control (MF-0: 0/6, MF-1 or 2: 6/6); PD325901 monotherapy (MF-0: 4/5, MF-1 or 2: 1/5); NS-018 monotherapy (MF-0: 0/6, MF-1 or 2: 6/6); and combined therapy (MF-0: 3/6, MF-1 or 2: 3/6). In the 2 groups treated with PD325901, 50~80% of mice showed MF-0. In contrast, in vehicle-treated or NS-018 monotherapy groups, all mice showed MF-1 or 2. Consistent with the MF grading, BM cellularity was significantly increased in the PD325901 monotherapy or combined therapy groups compared with the vehicle-treated group. A significant reduction was seen in the plasma TGFβ1 concentration in the PD325901 monotherapy and combined therapy groups compared with the vehicle-treated group (9.7 ng/ml, 8.1 ng/ml vs. 18.2 ng/ml, respectively). The TGFβ1 concentration in the extracellular fluid of BM (Wagner et al blood 2007) was also significantly reduced (5.6 ng/ml, 6.8 ng/ml vs. 9.1 ng/ml, respectively). BM cellularity and the TGFβ1 concentration in the NS-018 monotherapy group were comparable to those in the vehicle-treated group. Interestingly, megakaryocytes in the PD325901 monotherapy and combined therapy groups were decreased in number and were smaller than those in the vehicle-treated or NS-018 monotherapy groups. Regarding the effect on splenomegaly, spleen weight was significantly reduced in the NS-018 monotherapy and combined therapy groups compared with the vehicle-treated group (0.83 g, 0.69 g vs. 1.18 g, respectively). PD325901 monotherapy had little effect on splenomegaly.

It is known that MEK-ERK1/2 pathway is critical in normal megakaryocyte development. In vitro data suggest that JAK2VF activates this pathway downstream of MPL and may contribute to TGFβ1 overproduction and dysmegakaryopoiesis, causing BM fibrosis via transcriptional enhancement of USF1. In vivo data suggest that MEK inhibition has the potential to improve dysmegakaryopoiesis and BM fibrosis. The combined therapy of JAK2 inhibitors with MEK inhibitors might be a promising therapy for improving both splenomegaly and BM fibrosis.

Disclosures

No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.