The serine/threonine kinase AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and its downstream effectors, including endothelial nitric oxide synthase and BCL-2, are hyperactivated in B-cell precursor-acute lymphoblastic leukemia (BCP-ALL) cells with MLL gene rearrangements. We investigated the role of activated AMPK in supporting leukemic cell survival and evaluated AMPK as a potential drug target. Exposure of leukemic cells to the commercial AMPK inhibitor compound C resulted in massive apoptosis only in cells with MLL gene rearrangements. These results were confirmed by targeting AMPK with specific short hairpin RNAs. Compound C-induced apoptosis was associated with mitochondrial membrane depolarization, reactive oxygen species production, cytochrome c release and caspases cleavage, indicating intrinsic apoptosis pathway activation. Treatment with low concentrations of compound C resulted in a strong antileukemic activity, together with cytochrome c release and cleavage of caspases and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, also in MLL-rearranged primary BCP-ALL samples. Moreover, AMPK inhibition in MLL-rearranged cell lines synergistically enhanced the antiproliferative effects of vincristine, daunorubicin, cytarabine, dexamethasone and L-asparaginase in most of the evaluated conditions. Taken together, these results indicate that the activation of the AMPK pathway directly contributes to the survival of MLL-rearranged BCP-ALL cells and AMPK inhibitors could represent a new therapeutic strategy for this high-risk leukemia.
- acute lymphoblastic leukemia
- MLL rearrangements