Resistance to imatinib is commonly associated with reactivation of Bcr-Abl signalling. However, Bcr-Abl-independent signalling pathways may be activated and contributed to imatinib resistance in some CML (chronic myelogenous leukaemia) patients. We had isolated three imatinib-resistant K562/R1, R2 and R3 variants with gradual loss of Bcr-Abl from K562 cells to develop effective therapeutic strategies for imatinib-resistant CML. Interestingly, we found that these cells became highly sensitive to TRAIL (tumour necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing factor) in comparison with K562 cells showing high resistance to TRAIL. Treatment of K562/R3 cells with TRAIL resulted in activation of TRAIL receptor pathway by including caspase 8 activation, Bid cleavage, cytochrome c release and caspase 3 activation. These results were accompanied by down-regulation of c-FLIP {cellular FLICE [FADD (Fas-associated death domain)-like interleukin 1β-converting enzyme]-inhibitory protein} in imatinib-resistant K562 variants compared with K562 cells. Overexpression of c-FLIP in K562/R3 cells acquired TRAIL resistance and conversely, c-FLIP-silenced K562 cells became sensitive to TRAIL. Moreover, Bcr-Abl-silenced K562 cells showed down-regulation of c-FLIP and the subsequent overcome of TRAIL resistance. Taken together, our results demonstrated for the first time that the loss of Bcr-Abl in imatinib-resistant cells led to the down-regulation of c-FLIP and subsequent increase of TRAIL sensitivity, suggesting that TRAIL could be an effective strategy for the treatment of imatinib-resistant CML with loss of Bcr-Abl.

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