Introduction: In children diagnosed with leukemia, relapse and its associated morbidity and mortality remain the most dreaded consequences of the disease. Therefore, the discovery and implementation of novel and broadly applicable therapeutic strategies for these patients are urgently needed. Currently, a number of precision therapeutic approaches have been formulated where molecular analyses of the malignant cells have been used to inform, often multiple, probable targets and potential therapeutic agents. However, a common drawback of this approach has been the uncertainty involved in selecting the drug with the most and clinically relevant cytotoxic potential. In vitro xenograft approaches, although can provide key information on drug activity and side effects, are time consuming and impractical and cumbersome in most cases. We have recently demonstrated the ability of a bone marrow stromal derived cell line to sustain the growth and survival of patient leukemic cells in culture that has allowed in vitro evaluations of drug response.This methodology was combined with a previously validated molecular pathway analysis program to identify effective agents or combinations for a subsequent informed precision clinical trial.

Methods: Gene expression profiles from refractory pediatric leukemic cells were analyzed against similar data from more than 12, 000 tumors and outlier analyses were carried out to generate a list of overexpressed genes. This information was computed to identify hypothetically activated pathways, druggable targets and potential agents from a panel of FDA approved drugs. A bone marrow stromal cell line was established and characterized that has been shown to support leukemia cell proliferation in vitro. Briefly, stromal cells were co-cultured with leukemic cells at pre-determined ratios with and without the drugs identified in the genomic analysis. After four days in culture, leukemic cells were re-suspended and analyzed for proliferation. Target modulation and activated cell death pathways were queried by Western blot analyses.

Results: Multiple targets and potential agents for effective therapeutics were identified against an initial set of relapsed leukemia specimens. For example, in patient # P700491 (pre B-ALL) gene expression data sets revealed clustering within the area of ALL and AML in the reference cancer genomics data. Comparative tumor RNA seq outlier analysis showed molecular abnormalities in BTK, JAK3 and PIK3CD, corresponding to molecular categories of RTK, JAK-SAT and PI3K-AKT-mTOR pathways targetable by the drugs Ibrutinib, WHI-P131 and Idelalisib, respectively. However, in vitro studies showed significant cell killing with Idelalisib and not with the other two agents. Target modulation assays showed effective induction of apoptosis including PARP cleavage in Idelalisib treated leukemia cells compared to controls, indicating the feasibility of this approach to effectively identify potentially applicable agents for this individual patient.

Conclusions: We demonstrate the ability of a newly cloned bone marrow stromal derived cell line to sustain the growth and survival of patient leukemic cells in culture that has allowed in vitro target modulation and target validation analyses for cytotoxicity. This methodology was combined with a previously demonstrated molecular pathway interrogation program to ascertain effective agents or combinations for an experimentally informed precision clinical trial. Importantly, our data showed that genomically identified actionable targets are not universally predictive of tumor response and an in vitro cytotoxicity analysis step may enhance the accuracy of this approach. We describe the practical advantages and versatility of this work-flow to inform the selection of agents in future umbrella trials. It is anticipated that the information obtained will lead to an applicable clinical trial the near future.


Narendran:Bayer: Honoraria, Other: CANTRK Advisory Board .

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.