Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is characterized by an accumulation of abnormal white blood cells. Internal tandem duplications in the fms-like tyrosine kinase 3 (FLT3-ITD) account for 30% of adult AML cases and confer poor prognosis (Nakao et al., Leukemia 1996). FLT3 inhibitors like sorafenib efficiently eliminate circulating leukemia blasts, but frequently not in the bone marrow (BM), which suggests a protective effect of the BM niche for leukemic stem cell survival (Zhang et al., JNCI 2008). The homing of AML cells in BM is mediated chiefly by the adhesion to E-selectin on endothelial cells (ECs) and by CXCR4-directed cellular migration to stromal CXCL12 (SDF1) sources (Chien et al., Blood 2013; Peled and Tavor, Theranostics 2013). In many respects, BM homing signals are shared between leukemia and hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). Our previous study demonstrated that targeting E-selectin/CXCR4 with the dual E-selectin/CXCR4 antagonist GMI-1359 markedly reduced leukemia cell adhesion to ECs and mesenchymal stem cells, reduced the BM-mediated protection of leukemic cells during FLT3-targeted therapy in vitro, and effectively reduced leukemia cellularity in the BM in vivo (Zhang et al., Can Res suppl 2016). Further, GMI-1359 combined with cytarabine/daunorubicin provided a profound survival benefit in mice with FLT3-mutated leukemia (Zhang et al., Blood suppl 2015).

In the present study, we sought to evaluate dual E-selectin/CXCR4 blockage in the context of FLT3 inhibition by sorafenib in vivo, and to better understand the underlying mechanism. We compared expression levels of E-selectin ligands and CXCR4 in FLT3 inhibitor-sensitive Ba/F3-FLT3-ITD cells and their inhibitor-resistant counterparts Ba/F3-FLT3-ITD+D835Y and Ba/F3-FLT3-ITD+F691L. Resistant cells expressed 1.7 to ~5.6-fold higher levels of total E-selectin ligand detected by a soluble E-selectin reagent, and 10-fold higher levels of CXCR4. In addition, BM-mimetic hypoxia culture profoundly upregulated the cell surface expression of E-selectin ligands and CXCR4 on leukemia cells. We evaluated anti-leukemia effects of co-targeting E-selectin/CXCR4 and FLT3 with GMI-1359 and sorafenib in a patient-derived AML xenograft (PDX) model harboring FLT3-ITD and WT1 mutations. We observed that addition of GMI-1359 to sorafenib greatly reduced leukemia cellularity compared to sorafenib alone, and as much as by 92%, 82%, 69% and 45% in, respectively, liver, lung, spleen and BM (Fig. 1) as compared with vehicle-treated mice (p < 0.05). As expected, the number of circulating leukemia cells transiently increased. The GMI-1359/sorafenib combination improved mouse survival (median survival 138.5 versus 109, 87 and 126 days for the GMI-1359/sorafenib versus vehicle, GMI-1359 and sorafenib, respectively, p < 0.001).

Using intravital 2-photon microscopy, we observed AML cell behavior in calvarial BM and their response to acute GMI-1359 bolus infusion. Remarkably, AML cell mobility began to increase in the BM microenvironment as soon as 20 min after treatment (Fig. 2), followed by intravasation and cellular outflow through the BM capillary vasculature over the next 2-4 hours.

Moreover, although BM homing signals are thought to be shared between leukemia and HSCs, the combination therapy improved hematopoiesis parameters compared to sorafenib alone. In particular, this important effect was associated with increased numbers of megakaryocytes (2.1-fold), myelocytes (2.1-fold), and erythrocytes (7.1-fold) in BM (p < 0.01). The underlying mechanism(s) of hematopoiesis protection by GMI-1359 are under investigation. Conclusion: Co-inhibition of E-selectin/CXCR4 enhances the anti-leukemia efficacy of FLT3 inhibition and preserves hematopoiesis in the BM in a PDX model of AML.


Fogler:GlycoMimetics: Current Employment, Current equity holder in publicly-traded company, Patents & Royalties. Magnani:GlycoMimetics, Inc.: Current Employment, Current equity holder in publicly-traded company, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Patents & Royalties. Zal:Daiichi-Sankyo: Research Funding; Moleculin Biotech, Inc.: Research Funding. Andreeff:Daiichi-Sankyo; Breast Cancer Research Foundation; CPRIT; NIH/NCI; Amgen; AstraZeneca: Research Funding; Centre for Drug Research & Development; Cancer UK; NCI-CTEP; German Research Council; Leukemia Lymphoma Foundation (LLS); NCI-RDCRN (Rare Disease Clin Network); CLL Founcdation; BioLineRx; SentiBio; Aptose Biosciences, Inc: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Amgen: Research Funding; Daiichi-Sankyo; Jazz Pharmaceuticals; Celgene; Amgen; AstraZeneca; 6 Dimensions Capital: Consultancy.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.