Heart failure drug proscillaridin A targets MYC overexpressing leukemia through global loss of lysine acetylation

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2019 Jun 13;38(1):251. doi: 10.1186/s13046-019-1242-8.


Background: Cardiac glycosides are approved for the treatment of heart failure as Na+/K+ pump inhibitors. Their repurposing in oncology is currently investigated in preclinical and clinical studies. However, the identification of a specific cancer type defined by a molecular signature to design targeted clinical trials with cardiac glycosides remains to be characterized. Here, we demonstrate that cardiac glycoside proscillaridin A specifically targets MYC overexpressing leukemia cells and leukemia stem cells by causing MYC degradation, epigenetic reprogramming and leukemia differentiation through loss of lysine acetylation.

Methods: Proscillaridin A anticancer activity was investigated against a panel of human leukemia and solid tumor cell lines with different MYC expression levels, overexpression in vitro systems and leukemia stem cells. RNA-sequencing and differentiation studies were used to characterize transcriptional and phenotypic changes. Drug-induced epigenetic changes were studied by chromatin post-translational modification analysis, expression of chromatin regulators, chromatin immunoprecipitation, and mass-spectrometry.

Results: At a clinically relevant dose, proscillaridin A rapidly altered MYC protein half-life causing MYC degradation and growth inhibition. Transcriptomic profile of leukemic cells after treatment showed a downregulation of genes involved in MYC pathways, cell replication and an upregulation of hematopoietic differentiation genes. Functional studies confirmed cell cycle inhibition and the onset of leukemia differentiation even after drug removal. Proscillaridin A induced a significant loss of lysine acetylation in histone H3 (at lysine 9, 14, 18 and 27) and in non-histone proteins such as MYC itself, MYC target proteins, and a series of histone acetylation regulators. Global loss of acetylation correlated with the rapid downregulation of histone acetyltransferases. Importantly, proscillaridin A demonstrated anticancer activity against lymphoid and myeloid stem cell populations characterized by MYC overexpression.

Conclusion: Overall, these results strongly support the repurposing of proscillaridin A in MYC overexpressing leukemia.

Keywords: Cardiac glycosides; Chromatin remodelling; Leukemia; Leukemia stem cells; Lysine acetylation; Lysine acetyltransferase; MYC; Proscillaridin A.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylation
  • Antineoplastic Agents / adverse effects*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Chromatin / metabolism
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects
  • Gene Expression / drug effects*
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Genes, myc*
  • Heart Failure / etiology*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / complications
  • Leukemia / drug therapy
  • Leukemia / genetics*
  • Leukemia / metabolism
  • Lysine / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Proscillaridin / adverse effects*
  • Proscillaridin / therapeutic use
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Chromatin
  • Histones
  • Lysine
  • Proscillaridin