Background: Histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors (HDIs) vorinostat (SAHA) and romidepsin are approved for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, while belinostat has recently been approved for the treatment of peripheral T-cell lymphoma. SAHA exhibits clinical activity in myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), although insufficient to justify single-agent therapy for these indications. The precise clinical mechanism of SAHA and other HDIs remains incompletely characterized, impeding the design and implementation of rational HDI-based therapeutic combinations for myeloid malignancies. To circumvent this lack of mechanistic understanding, we conducted RNA-interference (RNAi) modifier screens of the kinome and phosphatome to identify signaling pathways that modulate SAHA (HDI) anti-leukemic activity in AML cell lines TF-1, HEL and THP-1 for rapid translation of findings from ex vivo validation to clinical application.

Results: Multiple screen hits (both kinases and phosphatases) converge on distinct points of the p38-SAPK/JNK signaling pathways, suggesting involvement of these stress-activated pathways in SAHA anti-leukemic activity. However, the most well characterized p38α/β inhibitors SB202190 and LY2228820 do not augment SAHA anti-leukemic activity at any dose across the broad dose ranges tested. Similarly, the JNK inhibitor SP600125 does not modulate SAHA activity at doses that inhibit JNK. However, the putative MK2a substrate-selective p38 inhibitor CMPD1 (Boehringer-Ingelheim; Davidson, W., et. al., Biochemistry 2004 Sep 21;43(37):11658-71) selectively potentiates the activity of SAHA in all AML cell lines tested (N=8), as well as in ex vivo cultures of primary myeloid malignancies (N=14), including polycythemia vera, chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, MDS/myeloproliferative neoplasm overlap syndrome, MDS transformed to AML, and de novo AML. The observed dose-dependent synergy occurs at nanomolar doses consistent with the reported apparent inhibitory constant for CMPD1 inhibition of p38-dependent phosphorylation of MK2a. Further, SAHA + CMPD1 synergy is significantly greater in CD34+-selected as compared to CD34+-depleted cell populations ex vivo. Furthermore, CMPD1 is similarly synergistic with the HDI panobinostat in vitro, but interacts antagonistically with cytarabine and additively with 5-azacitidine. This suggests that CMPD1 interacts specifically with SAHA and panobinostat in AML. The synergistic interaction between CMPD1 and SAHA is independent of ROS induction, as pretreatment with N-acetylcysteine does not abrogate synergy, despite reducing single-agent SAHA activity. While CMPD1 is reported to be an MK2a substrate-selective p38 inhibitor, CMPD1 does not affect the regulation of several canonical MK2 targets at doses that are potently synergistic in AML cell lines, including the phosphorylation of HSP27 or AATF. To begin to probe the mechanism of CMPD1 and SAHA synergy more extensively, mRNA expression was measured by next-generation sequencing after SAHA and CMPD1 treatment alone and in combination in the AML cell line TF-1. Sequencing data is currently being analyzed and findings will be presented.

Conclusion: RNAi knockdown of several p38-SAPK/JNK pathway components modulates SAHA activity in malignant myeloid cells; however, common pharmacological sensitizing targets remain elusive. We hypothesize that MK2 and/or a yet unrecognized pathway modulated by CMPD1 can be targeted for HDI combination therapy in malignant myeloid cells. Current and ongoing results from this study will provide validated targets for rational HDI combination in myeloid malignancies.


Off Label Use: LDE225/Sonidegib as investigational agent. Mesa:Incyte, CTI, NS pharma, Gilead, Celgene: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.