Signaling by the BCR-ABL fusion kinase drives Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph+ ALL) and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Despite their clinical activity in many patients with CML, the BCR-ABL kinase inhibitors (BCR-ABL-KIs) imatinib, dasatinib, and nilotinib provide only transient leukemia reduction in patients with Ph+ ALL. While host-derived growth factors in the leukemia microenvironment have been invoked to explain this drug resistance, their relative contribution remains uncertain. Using genetically defined murine Ph+ ALL cells, we identified interleukin 7 (IL-7) as the dominant host factor that attenuates response to BCR-ABL-KIs. To identify potential combination drugs that could overcome this IL-7-dependent BCR-ABL-KI-resistant phenotype, we screened a small-molecule library including Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs. Among the validated hits, the well-tolerated antimalarial drug dihydroartemisinin (DHA) displayed potent activity in vitro and modest in vivo monotherapy activity against engineered murine BCR-ABL-KI-resistant Ph+ ALL. Strikingly, cotreatment with DHA and dasatinib in vivo strongly reduced primary leukemia burden and improved long-term survival in a murine model that faithfully captures the BCR-ABL-KI-resistant phenotype of human Ph+ ALL. This cotreatment protocol durably cured 90% of treated animals, suggesting that this cell-based screening approach efficiently identified drugs that could be rapidly moved to human clinical testing.
Keywords: cancer and cancer drugs; cell-based assays; kinases; phenotypic drug discovery.