Background: Relapsed/refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) patients previously treated with rituximab-based therapy have poor clinical outcome, according to the results from collaborative trial in relapsed aggressive lymphoma (CORAL) study. It stresses the need to identify and/or optimize novel targeted agents. To better understand the molecular mechanisms underlining the acquired resistance to rituximab, we generated and characterized several rituximab-resistant DLBCL cell lines (RRCLs). Itraconazole, an oral antifungal agent, was reported had novel anticancer activity in basal cell carcinoma, non-small cell lung cancer and prostate cancer. In our current work, we define and characterize the anticancer activity of itraconazole in preclinical rituximab-sensitive or -resistant lymphoma models.

Methods: A panel of rituximab-sensitive (RSCL) and rituximab-resistant (RRCL) cell lines were exposed to escalating doses of itraconazole (0-20μM) for 24, 48 and 72h. Changes in cell viability and cell cycle distribution were evaluated using the Presto Blue assay and flow cytometry respectively. IC50 was calculated by Graphpad Prism6 software. Loss of mitochondrial membrane potential (∆ψm) following itraconazole exposure was assessed by DiOC6 and flow cytometry. Subsequently lymphoma cells were exposed to itraconazole or vehicle and various chemotherapy agents such as doxorubicin (1µM), dexamethasone (1µM), cDDP (20μg/ml), bortezomib (20nM), carfilzomib (20nM) or MLN2238 (20nM) for 48 hours. Coefficient of synergy was calculated using the CalcuSyn software. Changes in hexokinase II (HKII), Voltage dependent anion channel protein (VDAC), LC3 and BCL-xL expression levels were determined by western blotting after exposure cells to itraconazole. VDAC-HKII interactions following in vitro exposure to itraconazole were determined by immunoprecipitation of VDAC and probing for HKII in RSCL and RRCLs.

Result:Itraconazole consistently showed potent, specific, dose-and time- dependent inhibition of all our sensitive and resistant lymphoma cell lines. In vitro exposure cells to itraconazole resulted in a loss of mitochondrial membrane potential and caused G2 cell cycle arrest. Itraconazole significantly had a synergistic anti-tumor effect combined with various chemotherapeutic agents, including doxorubicin, dexamethasone, cisplatin and different generations of proteasome inhibitors (bortezomib, carfilzomib or ixazomib) in both RSCL and RRCL. Western blot and immunoprecipitation studies demonstrated that following exposure to itraconazole, HKII bound less to mitochondrial specific protein VDAC. Complete silencing of HKII (using HKII siRNA interference) resulted in a rescue of loss in the mitochondrial membrane potential induced by intraconazole.

Conclusion: Taking together, our data suggest that itraconazole had a potent anti-tumor activity against rituximab-sensitive or resistant pre-clinical models. The disruption of HKII from mitochondria following itraconazole exposure may contribute to lower the mitochondrial membrane potential and enhance the chemotherapeutic efficacy. Our finding highlights itraconazole as a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of B-cell malignancies, and strongly supports clinical translation of its use.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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