Multiple myeloma (MM) is a hematological malignancy characterized by various genetic abnormalities including translocations involving the IgH gene at 14q32. Amongst these, t(11;14) is one of the most common translocations. Recent clinical data suggests a significant impact of Venetoclax, a small molecule inhibitor of BCL2, in this subgroup of MM patients, representing the first example of personalized medicine in MM and opening a wide range of research aiming at elucidating its mechanism of action. However, despite the initial positive response to the drug, a significant proportion of patients eventually develop resistance and relapse.

To delineate the mechanisms that contribute to the development of an acquired drug-tolerant/resistance phenotype, we modeled the response to Venetoclax in 2 MM cell lines (KMS27 and KMS-12PE with IC50 of 35.47nM and 3.64nM, respectively). Whereas the vast majority of cells plated into 96-well plates were killed within a few days of exposure to a high dose of drug concentration, we detected a small fraction of viable, largely quiescent cells, which were expanded by culturing them in high doses of Venetoclax. We successfully generated 4 independent clones from each cell line, that were single cell-cloned with continued growth in the presence of high doses of Venetoclax. These clones labelled as drug-tolerant expanded persisters (DTEP) were investigated for the mechanisms driving drug tolerance and resistance against Venetoclax.

First, we observed that altered expression of apoptotic regulators were associated with Venetoclax resistance in DTEP cells. We indeed observe a significant increase in the anti-apoptotic proteins MCL1 and BCL-XL in DTEP clones, which translated in our observation of improved sensitivity to MCL1 and BCL-xL inhibitors (S63845 and A-1155463 respectively).

We performed both whole genome sequencing (WGS) and RNA-seq to evaluate if DTEP cells undergo transcriptional adaptation via genomic or epigenomic regulation and transcriptional reprograming during development of acquired drug resistance. While, WGS analysis didn't show any significant differences between parental and resistant clones, transcriptomic analysis showed both shared and unique transcriptome signatures in the DTEP clones.

Gene set enrichment analysis (GSEA) of the common significantly modulated genes in the resistant clones revealed that the genes belonging to the PKA-ERK-CREB pathway were significantly upregulated in resistant clones, while apoptotic genes were downregulated compared to parental cells. Western blot analysis confirmed activation of ERK and the downstream target cAMP response element-binding (CREB) gene in resistant clones; and importantly treatment with the ERK inhibitor U0126 rescued the resistance to Venetoclax, providing a synergistic activity in resistant clones but not in parental cells, with decreased cell viability and increased apoptotic cell death.

To evaluate if the ERK pathway was also associated with intrinsic resistance to Venetoclax, we assessed a panel of 24 MM cell lines and then calculated Pearson correlation coefficients between the measured drug activity and individual gene expression levels (by RNA-seq) across all cell lines and subjected the resulting rank-ordered gene list to GSEA. This analysis showed that mechanisms driving the DTEP phenotype are different from those associated with the intrinsic resistance to Venetoclax. RNA processing and splicing pathways were strongly enriched, with high expression of these genes correlating with increased sensitivity. Moreover, among the genes correlated with a resistant phenotype, we observed that the gene G0S2 was significantly downregulated in the resistant cell lines. G0S2 is a tumor suppressor gene that binds and inhibits BCL2. Interestingly, we observed that while G0S2 is downregulated in MM compared to normal plasma cells, t(11:14) patients have a higher expression. We are now in the process of validating G0S2 in MM and its contribution to Venetoclax sensitivity in MM.

In conclusion, we here provide evidences of molecular mechanisms of acquired resistance to Venetoclax with activation of the ERK pathway as one of the prime targets. Combining Venetoclax with ERK inhibitor may therefore prevent or overcome the acquired resistance to Venetoclax observed in MM patients.


Fulciniti:NIH: Research Funding. Munshi:C4: Current equity holder in private company; OncoPep: Consultancy, Current equity holder in private company, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Patents & Royalties; BMS: Consultancy; Adaptive: Consultancy; Legend: Consultancy; Amgen: Consultancy; AbbVie: Consultancy; Karyopharm: Consultancy; Takeda: Consultancy; Janssen: Consultancy. Anderson:Oncopep and C4 Therapeutics.: Other: Scientific Founder of Oncopep and C4 Therapeutics.; Bristol Myers Squibb: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Sanofi-Aventis: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Janssen: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Gilead: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Millenium-Takeda: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Celgene: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.