Despite the proven efficacy of proteasome inhibitors like bortezomib (BTZ) in multiple myeloma, mantle cell lymphoma, and in an experimental setting in pediatric acute leukemia, development of drug resistance remains a primary hindrance. To further understand the molecular basis underlying this chemoresistance phenomenon, various leukemia cell line models with acquired resistance to BTZ were developed and characterized. One common characteristic was that acquisition of point mutations in PSMB5 and upregulation of the β5-subunit of the proteasome were key determinants of BTZ-resistance in vitro. However, it remains unclear how these drug resistance modalities translate to the overcoming of proteolytic stress imposed by proteasome inhibition. From this perspective, we here undertook a multi-modality (DNA, mRNA, miRNA) array-based analyses of human CCRF-CEM acute leukemia cells and two BTZ-resistant subclones [one with a low resistance level [(10-fold, CEM/BTZ7) and another subline with a high resistance level (140-fold, CEM/BTZ200)] to determine whether or not complementary mechanisms contribute to BTZ resistance. Gene expression profiling studies revealed markedly reduced proteolytic stress induction in drug resistant cells over a broad BTZ concentration range. Moreover, several genes involved in cytoskeleton regulation and vesicle migration were increased in resistant cells. Of all genes, myristoylated alanine-rich C-kinase substrate (MARCKS) was the most differentially overexpressed gene with 25- to 42-fold upregulation in CEM/BTZ7 and CEM/BTZ200 cells, respectively. These observations were corroborated at the protein level and solely included unphosphorylated MARCKS rather than phosphorylated MARCKS, which was marginally expressed in CEM/BTZ cells. Interestingly, MARCKS upregulation was also observed in other BTZ-resistant and leukemia cells (CEM and THP1) with acquired resistance to the proteasome inhibitor salinosporamide A and the immunoproteasome inhibitor PR924. Given the overexpression of MARCKS in proteasome inhibitor-resistant leukemia cells, we further explored whether or not MARCKS overexpression may serve as a predictive marker of BTZ resistance in clinical samples of acute leukemia patients. To this end, we examined primary patient specimens from a phase II childhood refractory/relapsed ALL trial in which BTZ is administered in two intensive re-induction regimens containing vincristine, prednisone, PEG-asparaginase, doxorubicin or cyclophosphamide and etoposide followed by methotrexate treatment. MARCKS expression was demonstrated in 64% of therapy-refractory pediatric leukemia specimens (n=44) wherein higher MARCKS expression trended (p=0.09) towards a dismal response to BTZ-containing chemotherapy. Finally, from a mechanistic perspective, we showed a concentration-dependent association of MARCKS protein with the emergence of ubiquitin-containing vesicles in the resistant cells. This association with MARCKS protein was lost upon exocytosis of these vesicles, which were found to be extruded and taken up in co-cultures with recipient HeLa cells. Collectively, we propose a role for MARCKS in a novel mechanism of BTZ resistance through vesicular exocytosis of ubiquitinated proteins in BTZ-resistant cells to overcome proteolytic stress over a broad range of cytotoxic BTZ concentrations.
Kaspers:Janssen-Cilag: Research Funding. Smeets:Novartis: Employment. Zweegman:Celgene: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding; Janssen: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding; Takeda: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding. Cloos:Takeda: Honoraria.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.