The role of the positive RNA Pol II regulator, P-TEFb (positive transcription elongation factor b), in maintenance of the anti-apoptotic protein Mcl-1 and bortezomib (btz) resistance was investigated in human multiple myeloma (MM) cells. Mcl-1 was up-regulated in all MM lines tested, including bortezomib-resistant lines, human MM xenograft mouse models, and primary CD138+ MM cells. Mcl-1 over-expression significantly reduced bortezomib lethality, indicating a functional role for Mcl-1 in bortezomib resistance. MM cell lines, primary MM specimens, and murine xenografts exhibited constitutive P-TEFb activation, manifested by high CTD (carboxy-terminal domain) S2 phosphorylation, associated with a) P-TEFb subunit up-regulation i.e., CDK9 (42 and 55 kDa isoforms) and cyclin T1; and b) marked CDK9 (42 kDa) T186 phosphorylation. In marked contrast, normal hematopoietic cells failed to exhibit up-regulation of p-CTD, CDK9, cyclin T1, or Mcl-1. CDK9 or cyclin T1 shRNA knock-down dramatically inhibited CTD S2 phosphorylation and down-regulated Mcl-1. Moreover, CRISPR-Cas CDK9 knock-out triggered apoptosis in MM cells and dramatically diminished cell growth. Pan-CDK e.g., dinaciclib or alvocidib and selective CDK9 inhibitors (CDK9i) recapitulated the effects of genetic P-TEFb disruption. CDK9 shRNA or CDK9 inhibitors significantly potentiated the susceptibility of MM cells, including bortezomib-resistant cells, to proteasome inhibitors. Analogously, CDK9 or cyclin T1 knock-down or CDK9 inhibitors markedly increased BH3-mimetic lethality in bortezomib-resistant cells. Finally, pan-CDK inhibition reduced human drug-naïve or bortezomib-resistant CD138+ cells and restored bone marrow architecture in vivo. Collectively, these findings implicate constitutive P-TEFb activation in high Mcl-1 maintenance in MM, and validate targeting the P-TEFb complex to circumvent bortezomib-resistance.
Keywords: CDK inhibitors; MCL-1; P-TEFb; bortezomib resistance; myeloma.