The outcome for pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients who relapse is dismal. A hallmark of relapsed disease is acquired resistance to multiple chemotherapeutic agents, particularly glucocorticoids. In this study, we performed a genome-scale short hairpin RNA screen to identify mediators of prednisolone sensitivity in ALL cell lines. The incorporation of these data with an integrated analysis of relapse-specific genetic and epigenetic changes allowed us to identify the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway as a mediator of prednisolone resistance in pediatric ALL. We show that knockdown of the specific MAPK pathway members MEK2 and MEK4 increased sensitivity to prednisolone through distinct mechanisms. MEK4 knockdown increased sensitivity specifically to prednisolone by increasing the levels of the glucocorticoid receptor. MEK2 knockdown increased sensitivity to all chemotherapy agents tested by increasing the levels of p53. Furthermore, we demonstrate that inhibition of MEK1/2 with trametinib increased sensitivity of ALL cells and primary samples to chemotherapy in vitro and in vivo. To confirm a role for MAPK signaling in patients with relapsed ALL, we measured the activation of the MEK1/2 target ERK in matched diagnosis-relapse primary samples and observed increased phosphorylated ERK levels at relapse. Furthermore, relapse samples have an enhanced response to MEK inhibition compared to matched diagnosis samples in xenograft models. Together, our data indicate that inhibition of the MAPK pathway increases chemosensitivity to glucocorticoids and possibly other agents and that the MAPK pathway is an attractive target for prevention and/or treatment of relapsed disease.
© 2015 by The American Society of Hematology.