Background: Overexpression of BCL-2 is common in non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leads to resistance to programmed cell death (apoptosis) and promotes tumorigenesis. Antisense oligonucleotides targeted at the open reading frame of the BCL-2 mRNA cause a specific down-regulation of BCL-2 expression which leads to increased apoptosis. Lymphoma grown in laboratory animals responds to BCL-2 antisense oligonucleotides with few toxic effects. We report the first study of BCL-2 antisense therapy in human beings.
Methods: A daily subcutaneous infusion of 18-base, fully phosporothioated antisense oligonucleotide was administered for 2 weeks to nine patients who had BCL-2-positive relapsed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Toxicity was scored by the common toxicity criteria, and tumour response was assessed by computed tomography scan. Efficacy was also assessed by quantification of BCL-2 expression; BCL-2 protein levels were measured by flow cytometry in samples from patients.
Findings: During the course of the study, the daily dose of BCL-2 antisense was increased incrementally from 4.6 mg/m2 to 73.6 mg/m2. No treatment-related toxic effects occurred, apart from local inflammation at the infusion site. In two patients, computed tomography scans showed a reduction in tumour size (one minor, one complete response). In two patients, the number of circulating lymphoma cells decreased during treatment. In four patients, serum concentrations of lactate dehydrogenase fell, and in two of these patients symptoms improved. We were able to measure BCL-2 levels by flow cytometry in the samples of five patients, two of whom had reduced levels of BCL-2 protein.
Interpretation: In patients with relapsing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, BCL-2 antisense therapy led to an improvement in symptoms, objective biochemical and radiological evidence of tumour response, and down-regulation of the BCL-2 protein in some patients. Our findings are encouraging and warrant further investigations of BCL-2 antisense therapy in cancer treatment.