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New drug combination shows promise as treatment for form of leukemia, La Jolla scientists say

Acute myeloid leukemia cancer cells are viewed under a microscope.
(Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute)

Scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla have identified two drugs that are potent when combined against acute myeloid leukemia but only partially effective when used alone.

AML is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells.

Researchers were able to significantly enhance cancer cell death by jointly administering the drugs, according to a collaborative study by Sanford Burnham Prebys and the University of Glasgow that was published recently in the journal Nature Communications.

“Our study shows that two types of drugs, MDM2 inhibitors and BET inhibitors, work synergistically to promote significant anti-leukemia activity,” said Peter Adams, a professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys and senior author of the study. “The results were surprising because previous research had shown that each drug on its own had modest benefit against AML. The new research provides scientific rationale to advance clinical studies of the drug combination in patients with AML.”

Peter Adams, a professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, is senior author of a study on treating acute myeloid leukemia.
(Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute)

There are many types of AML, and different cases have different chromosome changes, gene mutations and epigenetic modifications, making it difficult for researchers to find novel therapies that will work for a substantial proportion of patients. Though much progress has been made toward finding effective treatments in recent years, the long-term overall survival rate has stagnated. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for adults with AML remains less than 30 percent.

TP53, the most frequently mutated gene in all human cancers, is found unaltered in about 90 percent of AML patients. Since the product of the TP53 gene, p53, acts to suppress tumors, scientists have sought drugs that reactivate or boost its anti-cancer powers in AML. However, such drugs on their own have been disappointing in fighting AML.

“We were interested in combining MDM2 and BET inhibitors because each showed encouraging pre-clinical activity but limited activity when given to patients as a single agent,” Adams said. “Previous research had shown that MDM2 inhibitors activate p53 and BET inhibitors suppress genes associated with leukemias — but not p53.

“Our research unexpectedly showed that, like MDM2 inhibitors, BET inhibitors activate p53, but through a different pathway. BET inhibitors mute the power of a protein called BRD4, which we found is a p53 suppressor in AML,” Adams said. “Between the two drugs, you end up with a ‘double whammy’ effect that fully unleashes the anti-cancer activity of p53.”

“Better therapies for AML are desperately needed,” he added. “This study illustrates that targeting BRD4 as part of a combination therapy holds promise for patients diagnosed with this very dangerous disease.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.