Azacytidine and erlotinib exert synergistic effects against acute myeloid leukemia
Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute
Protein Kinase Inhibitors
The term myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) identifies a heterogeneous group of clonal disorders originating from bone marrow stem cells that often progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The reference treatments for MDS include the DNA methyltransferase inhibitors azacytidine and decitabine. Recently, the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitor erlotinib has been shown to exert antileukemic activity in vitro and in vivo, independent of the EGFR. Thanks to this feature, erlotinib is currently being tested as an antileukemic drug in clinical trials. Here, we report that azacytidine and erlotinib mediate synergistic antineoplastic effects in several primary or secondary (post-MDS) AML cell lines. The combination of azacytidine and erlotinib blocked cell-cycle progression and induced caspase-dependent apoptosis more consistently than either of the two agents alone. These effects were not a consequence of cellular differentiation and could be discriminated from each other, as the former depended on caspases whereas the latter did not. The synergy between azacitidine and erlotinib, which involved the proteasomal degradation of the anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members MCL-1 and BCL2L10 and the upregulation of their pro-apoptotic counterpart PUMA, was abolished when azacytidine was replaced by decitabine but persisted when erlotinib was substituted with gefitinib, another EGFR inhibitor. Of note, the intracellular accumulation of azacytidine was exacerbated by both erlotinib and gefitinib, pointing to a pharmacokinetic mechanism of synergy. In approximately half of the cases studied, marrow and circulating blasts from MDS and AML patients, respectively, exhibited hyperadditive cytotoxic responses to the combination of azacytidine and erlotinib. These results strongly suggest that the combination of azacytidine and erlotinib may exert clinically relevant antileukemic effects.