Previous studies have demonstrated that AML is BCL-2 dependent malignancy, and leukemia stem cell (LSC) rely on BCL-2 for survival (Pan, Cancer Discovery 2014;Lagadinou, Cell Stem Cell, 2013). Selective Bcl-2 inhibitor venetoclax (ABT-199) combined with azacitidine was reported to inhibit complex II of the mitochondrial transport chain in AML (Pollyea, Nat Med 2018). IACS-010759, a novel complex I inhibitor, demonstrated effective inhibition of cell respiration and potent anti-leukemia effect in AML pre-clinical models (Molina, Nat Med 2018). We designed the experiments to study the combined efficacy and mechanisms of action of venetoclax and IACS-010759 in AML.

In vitro, priming of MOLM-13 cells with 20nM venetoclax for 24hrs followed by 10nM IACS-010759 for 1hr triggered 60% reduction in oxygen consumption rate (OCR), while only partial inhibition (<15% OCR reduction) was seen in cells treated with these agents separately. This translated in accelerated loss of the mitochondrial membrane potential by JC-1 flow cytometry, cleavage of caspase 3 and potent (>70%) reduction of viable cell numbers (OCI-AML2, MV-4-11, and MOLM-13). We have further shown by co-immunoprecipitation studies that venetoclax disrupts interaction of BCL-2 with the mitochondrial protein VDAC known to regulate ADP/ATP exchange during electron transport across mitochondria membrane. In addition, an MS-based metabolomics analysis indicated that ATP and CTP intracellular levels dropped to undetectable levels following treatment with ABT-199 (with or without IACS). ADP, GDP and UDP levels were unchanged with ABT-199; however, GDP levels dropped to undetectable levels following the combined treatment. Moreover, ABT-199 significantly increased intracellular levels of AMP, UMP, CMP and GMP and this accumulation of mono-nucleotides was enhanced by the combination of ABT-199 and IACS-010759. In primary AML samples (n=3) and PDX cells (n=4) cultured ex vivo, combined venetoclax and IACS-010759 at low nanomolar doses reduced viable cell numbers in an additive or synergistic fashion.

To better understand the role of BCL-2 in cellular respiration, we examined the oxygen consumption rates (OCR) in control or Bcl-2-overexpressing HL-60 cells (a kind gift of Dr. K. Bhalla, MDACC). The HL-60/BCL-2 cells had higher basal and maximal OCR than the control cells by Seahorse analysis, and higher mitochondrial ROS production by H2DCFDA and MitoSOX Red flow cytometry. BCL-2 inhibition with 100nM venetoclax for 2 hrs induced ROS production in control HL-60 cells but not in cells with BCL-2 overexpression. Further, cells with BCL-2 overexpression were less sensitive to IACS-010759. These data suggest that BCL-2 facilitates cellular respiration and reduces efficacy of the mitochondrial inhibitors.

Given recent accelerated FDA approval of venetoclax and azacitidine combination for elderly unfit AML, we next tested the efficacy of the "triple" combination of venetoclax, azacitidine and IACS-010759 in the in vivoAML PDX model. We injected AML PDX cells 3747422 harboring IDH1, NMP1, NRAS, CEBPA, FLT3-ITD mutations into NRG mice and upon engraftment, randomized mice into 4 groups to receive vehicle, venetoclax (50mg/kg, 5 days on/2 days off, day 1-21) with azacitidine (1.25mg/kg daily , day 1-7), IACS-010759 (1mg/kg, 5 days on/2 days off, day 1-14), or the triple combination. Therapy was well tolerated, without any apparent weight loss or toxicities. All therapies reduced circulating leukemia burden with the best efficacy seen in the triple-therapy cohort, with average circulating tumor burden of 31.2%, 6.9%, 5.1% and 0.4% in vehicle, IACS-010759, venetoclax/azacitidine and triple-therapy cohorts, respectively. Survival analysis and additional PDX models are ongoing and will be reported.

In summary, these findings indicate that BCL-2 modulates mitochondrial respiration in addition to its established anti-apoptotic role. Venetoclax disrupts the BCL-2/VDAC interactions and reduces mitochondrial respiration, which is facilitated by the combined therapy with mitochondrial complex I inhibitor IACS-010759. Our preliminary findings indicate potent anti-AML activity of the dual and triple (with hypomethylating agent) combinations in vitroand in vivo.


Zhang:The University of Texas M.D.Anderson Cancer Center: Employment. Kuruvilla:The University of Texas M.D.Anderson Cancer Center: Employment. Konopleva:Stemline Therapeutics: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Forty-Seven: Consultancy, Honoraria; Eli Lilly: Research Funding; Calithera: Research Funding; AbbVie: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Cellectis: Research Funding; Amgen: Consultancy, Honoraria; F. Hoffman La-Roche: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Genentech: Honoraria, Research Funding; Ascentage: Research Funding; Kisoji: Consultancy, Honoraria; Reata Pharmaceuticals: Equity Ownership, Patents & Royalties; Ablynx: Research Funding; Astra Zeneca: Research Funding; Agios: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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