Endogenous Noxa Determines the Strong Proapoptotic Synergism of the BH3-Mimetic ABT-737 with Chemotherapeutic Agents in Human Melanoma Cells

Transl Oncol. 2009 May;2(2):73-83. doi: 10.1593/tlo.08223.


Human melanoma cells are very resistant to treatment with chemotherapeutic agents, and melanoma shows poor response to chemotherapeutic therapy. We describe a strong synergistic proapoptotic effect of the Bcl-2 family inhibitor ABT-737 and the standard antimelanoma drugs, namely, dacarbazine and fotemustine, and the experimental agent, imiquimod. Experiments with human melanoma cells, keratinocytes, and embryonic fibroblasts showed that all three agents activated the mitochondrial apoptosis pathway. ABT-737 on its own was ineffective in melanoma cells unless Mcl-1 was experimentally downregulated. However, ABT-737 strongly enhanced the proapoptotic activity of the chemotherapeutic drugs. Whereas cell death induction by all three agents involved the activity of both BH3-only proteins, Bim and Noxa, the combination with ABT-737 overcame the requirement for Bim. However, the synergism between ABT-737 and imiquimod or dacarbazine required endogenous Noxa, as demonstrated by experiments with Noxa-specific RNAi. Surprisingly, although Bim was activated, it was unable to replace Noxa. Studies of mitochondrial cytochrome c release using BH3 peptides confirmed that a main effect of dacarbazine, fotemustine, and imiquimod was to neutralize Mcl-1, thereby sensitizing mitochondria to the inhibition of other Bcl-2 family members through ABT-737. ABT-737 is thus a promising agent for combination therapy for human melanoma. Importantly, the efficacy of this therapy depends on endogenous Noxa, and the ability of chemotherapeutic drugs to activate Noxa may be a valuable predictor of their synergism with Bcl-2-targeting drugs.