Background: Children with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) diagnosed with resistant phenotypes and those who relapse have a dismal prognosis for cure. In search for novel treatment strategies, we identified the AMP activated protein kinase (AMPK) as a potential drug target based on its effects on cell growth and survival. We have shown previously that AICAR-induced AMPK activation also induced a compensatory survival mechanism via PI3K/Akt signaling.
Results: In the present study, we further investigated the downstream signaling induced by AMPK activation in ALL cells. We found that AICAR-induced AMPK activation resulted in up-regulation of P-Akt (Ser473 and Thr308) and decrease of P-mTOR (Ser2448) expression and downstream signaling. We determined that activation of P-Akt (Thr308) was mediated by AMPK-induced IGF-1R activation via phosphorylation of the insulin receptor substrate-1 (IRS-1) at Ser794. Inhibition of IGF-1R signaling using the tyrosine kinase inhibitor HNMPA(AM)3 resulted in significant decrease in P-IRS-1 (Ser794) and P-Akt (Thr308). Co-treatment of AICAR plus HNMPA(AM)3 prevented AMPK-induced up-regulation of P-Akt (Thr308) but did not alter the activation of P-Akt (Ser473). Inhibition of AMPK using compound-C resulted in decreased P-Akt expression at both residues, suggesting a central role for AMPK in Akt activation. In addition, inhibition of IGF-1R signaling in ALL cells resulted in cell growth arrest and apoptosis. Additional Western blots revealed that P-IGF-1R (Tyr1131) and P-IRS-1 (Ser794) levels were higher in NALM6 (Bp-ALL) than CEM (T-ALL), and found differences in IGF-1R signaling within Bp-ALL cell line models NALM6, REH (TEL-AML1, [t(12;21)]), and SupB15 (BCR-ABL, [t(9;22)]). In these models, higher sensitivity to IGF-1R inhibitors correlated with increased levels of IGF-1R expression. Combined therapy simultaneously targeting IGF-1R, AMPK, Akt, and mTOR pathways resulted in synergistic growth inhibition and cell death.
Conclusions: Our study demonstrates that AMPK activates Akt through IGF-1R dependent and independent mechanisms. Co-targeting IGF-1R and related downstream metabolic and oncogenic signaling pathways represent a potential strategy for future translation into novel ALL therapies.