Optimal targeting of BCL-family proteins in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma requires inhibition of both BCL-xL and MCL-1

Oncotarget. 2019 Jan 11;10(4):494-510. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.26563.


Mechanisms of treatment resistance in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) are not well characterized. In this study, HNSCC tumors from a cohort of prospectively enrolled subjects on an ongoing tissue banking study were divided into those that persisted or recurred locoregionally (n=23) and those that responded without recurrence (n=35). Gene expression was evaluated using llumina HumanHT-12-v3 Expression BeadChip microarrays. Sparse Partial Least Squares - Discriminant Analysis (sPLS-DA) identified 135 genes discriminating treatment-resistant from treatment-sensitive tumors. BCL-xL was identified among 23% of canonical pathways derived from this set of genes using Ingenuity Pathway analysis. The BCL-xL protein was expressed in 8 HNSCC cell lines examined. Cells were treated with the BCL-xL inhibitor, ABT-263 (navitoclax): the average half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) was 8.9μM (range 6.6μM - 13.9μM). Combining ABT-263 did not significantly increase responses to 2 Gy radiation or cisplatin in the majority of cell lines. MCL-1, a potential mediator of resistance to ABT-263, was expressed in all cell lines and HNSCC patient tumors, in addition to BCL-xL. Treatment with the MCL-1 inhibitor, A-1210477, in HNSCC cell lines showed an average IC50 of 10.7μM (range, 8.8μM to 12.7μM). Adding A-1210477 to ABT-263 (navitoclax) treatment resulted in an average 7-fold reduction in the required lethal dose of ABT-263 (navitoclax) when measured across all 8 cell lines. Synergistic activity was confirmed in PCI15B, Detroit 562, MDA686LN, and HN30 based on Bliss Independence analysis. This study demonstrates that targeting both BCL-xL and MCL-1 is required to optimally inhibit BCL-family pro-survival molecules in HNSCC, and co-inhibition is synergistic in HNSCC cancer cells.

Keywords: A-1210477; BCL-xL; MCL-1; head and neck squamous carcinoma; navitoclax.