More effective treatment options for elderly acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients are needed as only 25-50% of patients respond to standard-of-care therapies, response duration is typically short, and disease progression is inevitable even with some novel therapies and ongoing clinical trials. Anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family inhibitors, such as venetoclax, are promising therapies for AML. Nonetheless, resistance is emerging. We demonstrate that venetoclax combined with cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) inhibitor alvocidib is potently synergistic in venetoclax-sensitive and -resistant AML models in vitro, ex vivo and in vivo. Alvocidib decreased MCL-1, and/or increased pro-apoptotic proteins such as BIM or NOXA, often synergistically with venetoclax. Over-expression of BCL-XL diminished synergy, while knock-down of BIM almost entirely abrogated synergy, demonstrating that the synergistic interaction between alvocidib and venetoclax is primarily dependent on intrinsic apoptosis. CDK9 inhibition predominantly mediated venetoclax sensitization, while CDK4/6 inhibition with palbociclib did not potentiate venetoclax activity. Combined, venetoclax and alvocidib modulate the balance of BCL-2 family proteins through complementary, yet variable mechanisms favoring apoptosis, highlighting this combination as a promising therapy for AML or high-risk MDS with the capacity to overcome intrinsic apoptosis mechanisms of resistance. These results support clinical testing of combined venetoclax and alvocidib for the treatment of AML and advanced MDS.
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
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