Wnt/β-catenin signaling regulates self-renewal and proliferation of AML cells and is critical in AML initiation and progression. Overexpression of β-catenin is associated with poor prognosis. We previously reported that inhibition of Wnt/β-catenin signaling by C-82, a selective inhibitor of β-catenin/CBP, exerts anti-leukemia activity and synergistically potentiates FLT3 inhibitors in FLT3-mutated AML cells and stem/progenitor cells in vitro and in vivo (Jiang X et al., Clin Cancer Res, 2018, 24:2417).

BCL-2 is a critical survival factor for AML cells and stem/progenitor cells and ABT-199 (Venetoclax), a selective BCL-2 inhibitor, has shown clinical activity in various hematological malignancies. However, when used alone, its efficacy in AML is limited. We and others have reported that ABT-199 can induce drug resistance by upregulating MCL-1, another key survival protein for AML stem/progenitor cells (Pan R et al., Cancer Cell 2017, 32:748; Lin KH et al, Sci Rep. 2016, 6:27696).

We performed RNA Microarrays in OCI-AML3 cells treated with C-82, ABT-199, or the combination and found that both C-82 and the combination downregulated multiple genes, including Rac1. It was recently reported that inhibition of Rac1 by the pharmacological Rac1 inhibitor ZINC69391 decreased MCL-1 expression in AML cell line HL-60 cells (Cabrera M et al, Oncotarget. 2017, 8:98509). We therefore hypothesized that inhibiting β-catenin by C-82 may potentiate BCL-2 inhibitor ABT-199 via downregulating Rac1/MCL-1.

To investigate the effects of simultaneously targeting β-catenin and BCL-2, we treated AML cell lines and primary patient samples with C-82 and ABT-199 and found that inhibition of Wnt/β-catenin signaling significantly enhanced the potency of ABT-199 in AML cell lines, even when AML cells were co-cultured with mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs). The combination of C-82 and ABT-199 also synergistically killed primary AML cells (P<0.001 vs control, C-82, and ABT-199) in 10 out of 11 samples (CI=0.394±0.063, n=10). This synergy was also shown when AML cells were co-cultured with MSCs (P<0.001 vs control, C-82, and ABT-199) in all 11 samples (CI=0.390±0.065, n=11). Importantly, the combination also synergistically killed CD34+ AML stem/progenitor cells cultured alone or co-cultured with MSCs.

To examine the effect of C-82 and ABT-199 combination in vivo, we generated a patient-derived xenograft (PDX) model from an AML patient who had mutations in NPM1, FLT3 (FLT3-ITD), TET2, DNMT3A, and WT1 genes and a complex karyotype. The combination synergistically killed the PDX cells in vitro even under MSC co-culture conditions. After PDX cells had engrafted in NSG (NOD-SCID IL2Rgnull) mice, the mice were randomized into 4 groups (n=10/group) and treated with vehicle, C-82 (80 mg/kg, daily i.p injection), ABT-199 (100 mg/kg, daily oral gavage), or the combination for 30 days. Results showed that all treatments decreased circulating blasts (P=0.009 for C-82, P<0.0001 for ABT-199 and the combination) and that the combination was more effective than each single agent (P<0.001 vs C-82 or ABT-199) at 2 weeks of therapy. The combination also significantly decreased the leukemia burden in mouse spleens compared with controls (P=0.0046) and single agent treated groups (P=0.032 or P=0.020 vs C-82 or ABT-199, respectively) at the end of the treatment. However, the combination did not prolong survival time, likely in part due to toxicity. Dose modifications are ongoing.

These results suggest that targeting Wnt/β-catenin and BCL-2, both essential for AML cell and stem cell survival, has synergistic activity via Rac1-mediated MCL-1 inhibition and could be developed into a novel combinatorial therapy for AML.


Andreeff:SentiBio: Equity Ownership; Oncolyze: Equity Ownership; Oncoceutics: Equity Ownership, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Jazz Pharma: Consultancy; Amgen: Consultancy, Research Funding; Eutropics: Equity Ownership, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Daiichi-Sankyo: Consultancy, Patents & Royalties: MDM2 inhibitor activity patent, Research Funding; Aptose: Equity Ownership, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Reata: Equity Ownership; Astra Zeneca: Research Funding; Celgene: Consultancy; United Therapeutics: Patents & Royalties: GD2 inhibition in breast cancer . Carter:novartis: Research Funding; AstraZeneca: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.