Background: Multiple myeloma (MM) cells evade apoptosis through multiple mechanisms thus enabling it to evade therapy. The Bcl2 family of anti-apoptotic proteins is aberrantly expressed in MM cell lines and patient cells. Yet, pharmacological intervention of this family appears to have significant activity only in molecular subgroups of MM patients. This clearly suggests alternate mechanisms of overcoming apoptotic signals in MM cells in addition to the Bcl2 family, through proteins such as IAPs. We have previously shown that simultaneous inhibition of the three major IAP proteins, namely cIAP1, cIAP2 and XIAP is required to induce pronounced apoptosis in MM cells. However, IAP inhibition results in apoptosis in only some MM cell lines and patient cells. Given that levels of Bcl2 family proteins are unaffected by IAP inhibition, we hypothesized that combined inhibition of the IAP proteins using a SMAC mimetic LCL161 and the Bcl2 family proteins using a pan-Bcl2 inhibitor obatoclax (OBX) will lead to more pronounced and synergistic cell death in a broader subgroup of MM patients.

Methods: LCL161 was synthesized by Novartis Inc. (Basel, Switzerland). OBX was purchased from Selleckchem (Houston, USA). Stock solutions were made in DMSO, and subsequently diluted in RPMI-1640 medium for use. MM cell lines were cultured in RPMI 1640 containing 10% fetal bovine serum (20% serum for primary patient cells) supplemented with L-Glutamine, penicillin, and streptomycin. Cytotoxicity was measured using the MTT viability assay and proliferation using thymidine uptake. Apoptosis was measured using flow cytometry upon cell staining with Annexin V-FITC and propidium iodide (PI) for cell lines and patient cells. Immunoblotting was done on cell extracts at various time points following incubation with the drugs in order to study the cell signaling pathways and a

Results: LCL161/OBX combination induced synergistic cytotoxicity and anti-proliferative effects on a broad range of human MM cell lines, including drug resistant cell lines like DOX40 and MM1R. Components of the bone marrow microenvironment including bone marrow stromal cells and tumor promoting cytokines (VEGF, IGF and IL6) were unable to protect MM cells from the effects of the drug combination. We saw a time dependent increase in apoptosis, with the combination inducing significantly more apoptosis than either of the single agents alone. Examining the mechanism of action of the drug combination showed clear inhibition of the IAP proteins, activation of caspases 9, 8, 3 and Bid by LCL161 and the combination and up regulation of the pro-apoptotic proteins Bim, Bid, Puma and Noxa and accumulation of LC3-II by OBX and the combination. Using chloroquine along with the OBX, we were able to demonstrate that OBX induced protective autophagy and the addition of LCL161 was able to overcome this protective effect induced after single agent OBX treatment. Since protective autophagy can be induced by the ER stress response, we then examined the expression levels of proteins involved in this pathway. We observed clear induction of ER stress mediated UPR pathway by both the drugs. However, LCL161 and OBX induced different branches of the UPR pathway. OBX activated the ATF6 and pErk/peif2α/ATF4 branches of the UPR, both of which have been implicated in cell survival during ER stress. ATF4 under irrecoverable ER stress can lead to increase in transcription of CHOP and cause apoptosis. We therefore examined levels of CHOP and observed no induction of CHOP post treatment with either of the drugs or the combination. LCL161, however differentially modulated the IRE1 branch of the UPR by down regulating Xbp-1 splicing, which is a pro survival activity of IREI and up regulating pJNK, which indicated a pro-apoptotic activity induced by IRE1 post irrecoverable ER stress This indicated that the ER stress induced apoptosis is triggered by LCL161, which might be important to overcome the ER induced protective effects induced by OBX.

Conclusion: Taken together, our studies indicate that LCL161/OBX combination induces synergistic cell death through modulation of apoptosis, authophagy and the ER stress response.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.