Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph+ ALL) is triggered by BCR/ABL kinase. Recent efforts focused on the development of more potent tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) that also inhibit mutant tyrosine kinases such as nilotinib and dasatinib. Although major advances in the treatment of this aggressive disease with potent inhibitors of the BCR/ABL kinases, patients in remission frequently relapse due to drug resistance possibly mediated, at least in part, by compensatory activation of growth-signaling pathways and protective feedback signaling of leukemia cells in response to TKI treatment. Continuous activation of AKT/mTOR signaling and inactivation of p53 pathway were two mechanisms of TKI resistance. Here, we reported that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA significantly potentiated the cytotoxic and apoptotic induction effects of imatinib by down-regulation of the AKT/mTOR pathway and reactivating the p53 pathway deeply in Ph+ ALL cell line. In primary samples from Ph+ ALL patients, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA also exhibited synergetic cytotoxic effects with imatinib. Of note, three samples from Ph+ ALL patients harboring T315I mutation also showed sensitivity to the combined treatment of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA. In Ph+ ALL mouse models, imatinib combined with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA also exhibited synergetic effects on reduction in leukemia burden. These results demonstrated that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined TKI might be a promising treatment strategy for Ph+ ALL patients.

Introduction

The oncogenic fusion protein BCR/ABL is a constitutively active tyrosine kinase that triggers both chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph+ ALL) [1]. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are widely used to treat leukemia driven by BCR/ABL [2]. Imatinib is most widely used to treat CML and Ph+ ALL. However, when used as a single agent, the response rate for Ph+ ALL to imatinib is lower than that of CML, the response duration is shorter; therefore, relapse and resistance are continuing problems [3,4]. Although major advances in the treatment of Ph+ ALL with potent inhibitors of the BCR/ABL kinase such as nilotinib and dasatinib, patients in remission frequently relapse due to drug resistance [57]. Among many mechanisms involved in TKI resistance, there are two kinds of resistance mechanisms in general, BCR/ABL-dependent and -independent resistance. Mutations in the BCR/ABL kinase domain (KD) are the most prevalent mechanism of BCR/ABL-dependent resistance [810]. BCR/ABL-independent resistance involves dynamics alteration of drug import and efflux, persistent or compensatory activation of signaling pathways that sustain leukemic cell survival [1116]. Among compensatory activation of signaling pathways, the AKT/mTOR pathway plays an especially important role in the TKI resistance [13,14]. Besides the above factors, inactivation of p53 pathway is involved in TKI resistance. In Ph+ ALL cells, TKI treatment leads to transcriptional inactivation of the p53 pathway via BCL6 up-regulation, which enables leukemia cells to survive TKI treatment [17]. Inactivation of p53 pathway in response to TKI treatment represents a novel BCR/ABL-independent TKI defense mechanism. Above two kinds of mechanisms may interact with each other and synergize to prevent the eradication of leukemia cells, resulting in persistent minimal residual disease, eventually leading to relapse of leukemia. Therefore, in addition to the development of more potential TKI inhibitors that also inhibit mutant tyrosine kinases, targeting dysregulated signal pathways under TKI treatment, especially AKT/mTOR pathway and p53 pathway, may be a promising strategy to overcome TKI resistance and eradicate minimal residual disease.

In our previous experiments, we demonstrated imatinib treatments rarely induced apoptosis of Ph+ ALL cells, SUP-B15 cells, and imatinib alone improved the activation of AKT/mTOR signaling pathway, and curcumin and oridonin potentiated antileukemia activity of imatinib via inhibiting the AKT/mTOR signaling pathway [18,19]. Ding et al. [20] revealed that inhibition of PI3K/mTOR overcame nilotinib resistance in BCR/ABL-positive leukemia cells. MDM2, a p53-specific E3 ubiquitin ligase, mediates the ubiquitin-dependent degradation of p53 and acts as the most important negative regulator of p53 [21]. Nutlin-3 is a potent and selective small-molecule MDM2 antagonist. Nutlin-3 has shown significant antitumor effects by activating p53 in different types of hematological malignancies [22]. Nutlin-3 reactivates p53 pathway by targeting the MDM2–p53 interaction and represents a novel potential therapeutic strategy in hematological malignancies. Tanshinone IIA, one of the phytochemical compounds isolated from the Chinese medicinal herb Red Sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza), has been reported to exert diverse biological properties including antioxidative, antiangiogenic, and anti-inflammatory activities [23,24]. Importantly, antitumor activities have been reported in many cancer including leukemia [2533]. More interestingly, tanshinone IIA has the effects of inhibiting the AKT pathway and activating the p53 pathway [2528,34].

In view of the effects of nutlin-3 and tanshinone IIA on p53 and AKT/mTOR pathways, in the present study, we investigated the potential therapeutic effect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib by reactivating p53 and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway in Ph+ ALL.

Materials and methods

Antibodies and chemicals

Nutlin-3 was purchased from Cayman Chemical. Imatinib was purchased from LC Laboratories. Tanshinone IIA was from Shanghai Shi Feng biological Co. Ltd. The 20 mM stock solution of imatinib in DMSO, the 10 mM stock solution of nutlin-3 in DMSO, and the 20 mM stock solution of tanshinone IIA in DMSO were stored at −20°C. Tan IIA (sulfotanshinone sodium injection, 20 mg/ml), obtained from the first Biochemical Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. (Shanghai, China), was used in the in vivo experiment. The antibodies against p-ABL(Tyr245), p-AKT(ser473), p-mTOR(ser2448), p-4EBP1(Thr37/46), p-P70S6(Thr389), p-MEK1/2(ser217/221), p-STAT5(Tyr694), p-SRC(Tyr416), AKT, mTOR, 4EBP1, P70S6, MEK1/2, and BCL-XL were obtained from Cell Signaling Technologies. The antibodies against p53, MDM2, and p-MDM2(ser166) were purchased from Santa Cruz Biotechnology. The antibody against p21 was purchased from Medical & Biological Laboratories Co. Ltd. The antibody against BAX was purchased from affymetrix eBioscience. The antibody against MCL1 was purchased from ORIGENE. Antihuman CD19 PE — Cyanines — was purchased from eBioscience, Inc., San Diego, CA. The Annexin V-FITC apoptosis detection kit was obtained from KeyGen Biotech. Co. Ltd. 3-(4,5-Dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl-2H-tetrazolium bromide (MTT) was obtained from Sigma. IMDM, RPMI 1640 medium, penicillin/streptomycin and fetal bovine serum (FBS) were obtained from Hyclo Company.

Cell lines, patients' specimens and mice

SUP-B15, a human Ph+ ALL cell line expressing P190-BCR/ABL with wild-type p53, was obtained from American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). SUP-B15/RI (imatinib-resistant SUP-B15) cell line was generated from parental SUP-B15 by gradually increasing concentration of imatinib until 10 µM. Gene sequence analysis showed there was no BCR/ABL1 KD mutation and p53 mutation in SUP-B15/RI cell line. A comparison of signaling proteins between SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells is presented in Supplementary Figure S1. Two weeks after withdrawal of imatinib, the SUP-B15/RI cells were used in experiments. Ph− ALL cell line NALM-6, CML cell line (K562), and AML cell line (MV4-11) were obtained from ATCC. SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI were cultured in IMDM medium supplemented with 10% FBS, 1% penicillin–streptomycin, and 2 mM l-glutamine. NALM-6, K562, and MV4-11 were cultured in RPMI 1640 medium supplemented with 10% FBS, 1% penicillin–streptomycin, and 2 mM l-glutamine. SUP-B15 and NALM-6 cell lines lacked genetic alteration of TP53. K562 cell line was p53-null, and MV4-11 was p53-mutated.

Bone marrow (BM) or peripheral blood (PB) samples were obtained from 11 Ph+ ALL patients and 1 CML with acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patients at the Department of Hematology in the West China Hospital of Sichuan University, upon written informed consent, according to the Declaration of Helsinki. Eight of 11 Ph+ ALL patients were newly diagnosed with one harbored E225K mutation in the BCR/ABL1 KD, 3 of 11 were relapsed Ph+ ALL, and all harbored T315I mutation in the BCR/ABL1 KD. The CML with acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patient also harbored T315I mutation. Patient characteristics are summarized in Table 1. Normal human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were obtained from the blood of three donors. Non-hematopoietic malignancy bone marrow was obtained from three patients with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). The mononuclear cells were isolated by density centrifugation (Ficoll-Hypaque).

Table 1
Clinical characteristics of patients
Patient number Gender Age Sample type Disease status ABL mutation status 
#1 85 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#2 27 PB Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#3 27 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#4 31 BM Refractory Ph+ ALL E255K 
#5 52 PB CML acute B lymphoblastic transformation T315I 
#6 38 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after dasatinib treatment T315I 
#7 44 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#8 40 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#9 40 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#10 51 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#11 22 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after imatinib treatment T315I 
#12 37 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after imatinib treatment T315I 
Patient number Gender Age Sample type Disease status ABL mutation status 
#1 85 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#2 27 PB Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#3 27 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#4 31 BM Refractory Ph+ ALL E255K 
#5 52 PB CML acute B lymphoblastic transformation T315I 
#6 38 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after dasatinib treatment T315I 
#7 44 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#8 40 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#9 40 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#10 51 BM Newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL N/A 
#11 22 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after imatinib treatment T315I 
#12 37 PB Relapsed Ph+ ALL after imatinib treatment T315I 

All female NOD/SCID mice used in the present study were obtained from Beijing Weitong Lihua Experimental Animal Technology Co. Ltd. The mice were bred in a specific pathogen-free environment in the experimental animal center of West China Hospital, Sichuan University. All animal procedures were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Sichuan University West China Hospital, following the guideline of the US National Institutes of Health.

Cell viability assay and median effect analysis

Cell viability was measured by MTT assay as recently described [18]. Cellular viability was calculated as the percentage of viable cells compared with vehicle control (0.1% DMSO). All experiments were conducted in triplicate. To characterize the drug interaction between SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells, the data of decrease in cell viability were analyzed using the median effect method developed by Chou and Talalay. The combination index (CI) values at fixed imatinib : nutlin-3 : tanshinone IIA concentration ratios were calculated using the commercially available software Calcusyn 2.1 (Biosoft, Cambridge, U.K.). CI values <1.0 indicate synergism, CI values = 1.0 indicate additive effect, and CI values >1.0 indicate antagonism.

Apoptosis analysis by flow cytometry

Induction of apoptosis was quantified by Annexin V-FITC/propidium iodide (PI) staining followed by analysis using a Cytomics FC500 flow cytometer equipped with CXP software as recently described [18]. For each analysis, 10 000 events were recorded.

Western blot analysis

For Western blot analysis, cells were lysed and equal amounts of protein for each sample were migrated in SDS–polyacrylamide gels and blotted onto nitrocellulose filters as previously described [19]. Protein signals were detected using enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL) detection systems and film imaging (Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc.), in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.

Quantitative real-time PCR analysis

Quantitative PCR was performed on a CFX96™ Real-Time PCR system using the manufacturer's protocol. RNA was prepared using RNAzol® RT. For mRNA quantification, reverse transcription was performed using the Thermo Scientific RevertAid First Strand cDNA Synthesis kit. Expression of genes was assessed using the KAPA SYBR® FAST qPCR Kit Master Mix (2×) Universal (Kapa Biosystems) with GAPDH as an internal control. Primers were the following:

  • p53: 5′-GTGCGTGTTTGTGCCTGTCCT-3′ (forward)

  • p53: 5′-CAGTGCTCGCTTAGTGCTCCCT-3′ (reverse)

  • MDM2: 5′-GGCAGGGGAGAGTGATACAGA-3′ (forward)

  • MDM2: 5′-GAAGCCAATTCTCACGAAGGG-3′ (reverse)

  • BAX: 5′-CCTTTTGCTTCAGGGTTTCA-3′ (forward)

  • BAX: 5′-TCCATGTTACTGTCCAGTTCGT-3′ (reverse)

  • p21: 5′-TGTCCGTCAGAACCCATGC-3′ (forward)

  • p21: 5′-AAAGTCGAAGTTCCATCGCTC-3′ (reverse).

Immunofluorescence microscopy detection for p53 protein localization

Localization of p53 protein was evaluated using immunofluorescence microscopic examination. Cells were grown in six-well plates and treated with indicated drugs for 24 h. After incubation, cells were collected in eppendorf tubes. Then, cells were washed twice with PBS, fixed with 4% paraformaldehyde for 15 min at room temperature, and permeabilized with 0.25% Triton X-100 diluted in PBS for 10 min. The cells were blocked in PBST containing 1% bovine serum albumin for 30 min at room temperature, followed by incubation overnight at 4°C with mouse monoclonal anti-p53 antibody (1 : 100 vol/vol diluted in PBST + 1% bovine serum albumin). After washing, cells were incubated with Alexa Fluor® donkey antimouse IgG secondary antibody (1 : 1000 diluted in PBST + 1% bovine serum albumin) (Life Technologies) at room temperature for 1 h. After washing, nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole) contained in Glycerin Jelly, then cells were dropped on glass slide and coverslipped. Images were obtained using a Zeiss Axio Imager Z2 microscope with ZEN lite software.

In vivo studies

Female NOD/SCID mice aged 5–6 weeks were irradiated at a dose of 150 cGy on day 1 and 6 h later intravenously injected with 107 SUP-B15 cells via tail vein. After 7 days, the mice were injected intraperitoneally with 10 mg/kg/day imatinib, 10 mg/kg/day nutlin-3, 30 mg/kg/day tanshinone IIA (sulfotanshinone sodium injection) alone, or a combination of the three drugs over a period of 14 days. One week after discontinuing drugs, the mice were killed, and bone marrow samples were obtained to detect the BCR/ABL gene expression changes using RT-PCR methods (BCR/ABL gene forward primer: 5′-CCGGAGTTTTGAGGATTGCGGA-3′, and reverse primer: 5′-TTGGAGTTCCAACGAGCGGC-3′) and CD19-positive cells by flow cytometry using antihuman CD19 PE-Cyanines for the assessment of leukemia burden in mice. During the whole experiment, we measured the body weight of mice and observed their activity, diet, and drinking water every day in order to roughly assess the adverse drug reactions.

Statistical analysis

All data were expressed as mean ± standard deviation unless otherwise indicated. Statistical analysis was performed by one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with Bonferroni's corrected t-test for post hoc pair-wise comparisons using the software IBM SPSS 24.0. Differences with P < 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

Results

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA synergistically potentiates cytotoxic and apoptotic induction effects of imatinib in Ph+ ALL cell lines

In the first group of experiments, we investigated the cytotoxic effect of different drug treatments in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells. To better evaluate synergistic cytotoxic effect to determine the best combination, we not only examined the cytotoxic effect of single drug and imatinib combined with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA (we called it three-drug combination in the present paper), but also detected the cytotoxic effect of every two-drug combinations. SUP-B15 cells and SUP-B15/RI cells were exposed to serial concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA, used either alone or in combination at a constant imatinib : nutlin-3 : tanshinone IIA ratio (1 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15 and 2 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15/RI). Details of the drug treatments were presented in Supplementary Table S1. Cell viability was analyzed by MTT assay after 24 h treatment. As shown in Figure 1A,D, the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA at constant ratio exhibited a synergistic cytotoxic effect in SUP-B15 cells (Figure 1B,C) and SUP-B15/RI cells (Figure 1E,F) with CI <1. These results demonstrated that 2 μM imatinib combined with 2 μM nutlin-3 plus 8 μM tanshinone IIA achieved a very good synergistic cytotoxic effect in SUP-B15 cells, without significant increase in cytotoxic effect as drug concentration further increased. Therefore, we selected 2, 2, and 8 μM as working concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA, respectively, in our subsequent studies. For similar reasons, we selected 8, 4, and 16 μM as working concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA to treat SUP-B15/RI cells, respectively. Next, we compared the cytotoxic effects of different drug treatments under above drug concentrations in SUP-B15 cells and SUP-B15/RI cells. As shown in Figure 2A,B, both in SUP-B15 cells and SUP-15/RI cells, cytotoxic effect of nutlin-3 was strongest among single-drug groups, cytotoxic effect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA was strongest among the two-drug combination groups, and cytotoxic effect of the three-drug combination was stronger than any single group or two-drug combination group. Therefore, we believed that the three-drug combination was the most effective regimen.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA synergistically potentiated the cytotoxicity effects of imatinib in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 1.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA synergistically potentiated the cytotoxicity effects of imatinib in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells and SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with serial concentrations of imatinib (0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells), nutlin-3 (0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells), tanshinone IIA (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 20 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells) alone or in combination at a constant imatinib : nutlin-3 : tanshinone IIA ratio (1 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15 cells and 2 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15/RI cells) for 24 h using 0.1% DMSO treatment as vehicle control. Cell viability was determined by MTT, and the dose–effect plots to determine drug efficacy are shown for SUP-B15 (A) and SUP-B15/RI (D), the decrease in cell viability, labeled as ‘effect’ on the Y-axis, was determined in assays done at least three times in triplicate. CI for cytotoxic effect was calculated and graphed using Calcusyn 2.1 software (B and E). The dashed line indicates a CI of 1. (C and D) CI values for cytotoxic effect of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA at constant ratio in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells.

Figure 1.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA synergistically potentiated the cytotoxicity effects of imatinib in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells and SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with serial concentrations of imatinib (0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells), nutlin-3 (0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells), tanshinone IIA (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 μM for SUP-B15 cells and 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 20 μM for SUP-B15/RI cells) alone or in combination at a constant imatinib : nutlin-3 : tanshinone IIA ratio (1 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15 cells and 2 : 1 : 4 for SUP-B15/RI cells) for 24 h using 0.1% DMSO treatment as vehicle control. Cell viability was determined by MTT, and the dose–effect plots to determine drug efficacy are shown for SUP-B15 (A) and SUP-B15/RI (D), the decrease in cell viability, labeled as ‘effect’ on the Y-axis, was determined in assays done at least three times in triplicate. CI for cytotoxic effect was calculated and graphed using Calcusyn 2.1 software (B and E). The dashed line indicates a CI of 1. (C and D) CI values for cytotoxic effect of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA at constant ratio in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exerts the strongest cytotoxic effects in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 2.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exerts the strongest cytotoxic effects in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 (A), NALM-6 (C), K562 (D), MV4-11 (E), PBMCs (F), and BMMCs (G) cells were treated with 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. (B) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 8 μM imatinib (I), 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. In the above experiments, we used 0.1% DMSO treatment as control. Cell viability was determined by the MTT assay. The data were expressed as a percentage relative to that of DMSO-treated control, which was set to 100%, and were the means ± SD of three independent experiments, each performed in triplicate. The significance of the differences was determined using a one-way ANOVA with Bonferroni post-test: *P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 alone; #P < 0.05 vs. imatinib + nutlin-3 group; §P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 + tanshinone IIA group.

Figure 2.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exerts the strongest cytotoxic effects in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 (A), NALM-6 (C), K562 (D), MV4-11 (E), PBMCs (F), and BMMCs (G) cells were treated with 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. (B) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 8 μM imatinib (I), 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. In the above experiments, we used 0.1% DMSO treatment as control. Cell viability was determined by the MTT assay. The data were expressed as a percentage relative to that of DMSO-treated control, which was set to 100%, and were the means ± SD of three independent experiments, each performed in triplicate. The significance of the differences was determined using a one-way ANOVA with Bonferroni post-test: *P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 alone; #P < 0.05 vs. imatinib + nutlin-3 group; §P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 + tanshinone IIA group.

Additionally, to confirm whether the synergistic cytotoxic role of the three-drug combination was cell line, p53 status, and BCR–ABL kinase-dependent or not, we also examined its effects on NALM-6 cell line (BCR/ABL-negative, p53wild-type), K562 cell line (BCR/ABL-positive, p53deleted), and MV4-11 cell line (BCR/ABL-negative, p53mutated). To detect toxicity of drugs to normal cells, we examined cytotoxic effect of drugs on the PBMCs (normal PBMCs) from three donors and bone marrow mononuclear cells (normal BMMCs) from three patients with ITP. Above cells were exposed to the single agents (2 μM imatinib, 2 μM nutlin-3, or 8 μM tanshinone IIA), any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination for 24 h. Then, cell viability was analyzed by the MTT assay. Our results indicated that, in NALM-6 cells, imatinib had no cytotoxic effect, cytotoxic effect of nutlin-3 was stronger than that of tanshinone IIA, and cytotoxic effect of ntulin-3 plus tanshinone IIA was stronger than that of both single agents, the addition of imatinib neither enhanced the cytotoxic effect of nutlin-3 or tanshinone IIA alone nor that of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA (Figure 2C). In K562 cells, cytotoxic effect of imatinib was stronger than that of tanshinone IIA, nutlin-3 had no cytotoxic effect, cytotoxic effect of imatinib plus tanshinone IIA was stronger than that of both single agents, and the addition of nutlin-3 neither enhanced the cytotoxic effect of imatinib or tanshinone IIA alone nor that of imatinb plus tanshinone IIA (Figure 2D). In MV4-11 cells, both imatinib and nutlin-3 had no cytotoxic effect, tanshinone IIA had mild cytotoxic effect, and neither imatinib or nutlin-3 alone nor imatinib plus nutlin-3 enhanced the cytotoxic effect of tanshinone IIA (Figure 2E). Above results suggested that synergistic cytotoxicity of the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA was p53 status and BCR–ABL kinase-dependent. Of note, the combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA had minimal cytotoxic effects on normal human mononuclear cells (Figure 2F,G).

Next, we examined the effect of three-drug combination on apoptosis in SUP-B15 cells and SUP-B15/RI cells using flow cytometry. The results indicated that imatinib or tanshinone IIA alone induced little apoptosis at 24 h, nutlin-3 induced moderate apoptosis; however, the three-drug combination induced a large number of apoptosis in both SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI (Figure 3A,B). Furthermore, apoptosis induced by the three-drug combination was higher than that induced by any two-drug combinations (Figure 3C,D). These results indicated that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA most effectively enhanced apoptotic induction effect of imatinib.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced the most significant apoptotic effect in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 3.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced the most significant apoptotic effect in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

(A and C) SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. (B and D) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatment period, the cells were collected, and the percent of apoptotic cells was examined by flow cytometry using the Annexin V-FITC/PI apoptosis detection kit. The data were the means ± SD of three independent experiments. A and B only demonstrated one representative flow cytometry assay. The significance of the differences was determined using a one-way ANOVA with Bonferroni post-test: *P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 alone; #P < 0.05 vs. imatinib + nutlin-3 group; §P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 + tanshinone IIA group.

Figure 3.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced the most significant apoptotic effect in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

(A and C) SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. (B and D) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatment period, the cells were collected, and the percent of apoptotic cells was examined by flow cytometry using the Annexin V-FITC/PI apoptosis detection kit. The data were the means ± SD of three independent experiments. A and B only demonstrated one representative flow cytometry assay. The significance of the differences was determined using a one-way ANOVA with Bonferroni post-test: *P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 alone; #P < 0.05 vs. imatinib + nutlin-3 group; §P < 0.05 vs. nutlin-3 + tanshinone IIA group.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically reactivates the p53 pathway in Ph+ ALL cell lines

Inactivation of the p53 pathway is involved in TKI resistance of Ph+ ALL cells. Reactivation of p53 pathway might be a promising strategy to overcome TKI resistance. Nutlin-3 reactivates the p53 pathway by blocking interaction between MDM2 and p53. Tanshinone IIA activates the p53 pathway by regulating p53 expression. So, we hypothesized that reactivation of p53 pathway is a principal mechanism that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA exhibit synergistic apoptotic induction effect with imatinib. We will illustrate our hypothesis by detecting the activation status of p53. The activation status of p53 was determined by examining the mRNA and protein levels of p53 and its main transcription targets MDM2, BAX, and p21, and relocation of p53 in the cells, as well as their downstream effects apoptosis.

We examined the effects of drugs on mRNA expression of p53 and its target genes using quantitative real-time PCR analysis. As shown in Figure 4A,B, both in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells, imatinib monotherapy slightly up-regulated MDM2 expression. Imatinib mildly inhibited p21 expression and had less effects on p53 and BAX expression in SUP-B15 cells. In SUP-B15/RI cells, imatinib alone slightly down-regulated p53 and BAX expression and had less effect on p21 expression. Nutlin-3 alone had less effect on the expression of p53, but significantly up-regulated expression of its target genes MDM2, BAX, and p21. Tanshinone IIA up-regulated p53 and p21 expression, but had less effect on BAX and MDM2 expression. In two-drug combinations, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA most effectively increased the expression of p53 target genes MDM2, BAX, and p21. Although imatinib alone had less effect on the expression of p53, when combined with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, the effect of up-regulation of BAX and p21 was maximized, stronger than nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA. Furthermore, compared with the two-drug combination of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, the three-drug combination did not further increase the expression of MDM2. These results indicated that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA could overcome the defect of no activation of p53 pathway by imatinib alone and effectively reactivate the p53 pathway at the transcription level.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically reactivated p53 pathway in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 4.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically reactivated p53 pathway in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatments, the cells were collected for following experiment. (A and B) The relative mRNA quantification of p53 and its target genes (MDM2, BAX, and p21) were performed by real-time RT-PCR as described in the Materials and Methods section. The data are the mean values ± SD of three different experiments, with respect to the control set to 1 (dashed line). (C and D) Total protein lysates were subjected to Western blot analysis for MDM2, p-MDM2, p53, BAX, and p21 using corresponding antibodies. One representative Western blot was presented. GAPDH was used as the loading control. (E and F) Cells were stained for p53 (red) and nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (blue). Localization of p53 in the cells was indicated in the merged image. Scale bar = 20 μm.

Figure 4.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically reactivated p53 pathway in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.01% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatments, the cells were collected for following experiment. (A and B) The relative mRNA quantification of p53 and its target genes (MDM2, BAX, and p21) were performed by real-time RT-PCR as described in the Materials and Methods section. The data are the mean values ± SD of three different experiments, with respect to the control set to 1 (dashed line). (C and D) Total protein lysates were subjected to Western blot analysis for MDM2, p-MDM2, p53, BAX, and p21 using corresponding antibodies. One representative Western blot was presented. GAPDH was used as the loading control. (E and F) Cells were stained for p53 (red) and nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (blue). Localization of p53 in the cells was indicated in the merged image. Scale bar = 20 μm.

We examined the effects of drugs on protein expression of p53 and its target genes using Western blot analysis. As shown in Figure 4C,D, both in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells, the protein expression levels of p53 were down-regulated by imatinib alone and had less effects on BAX and p21 expression. Nutlin-3 significantly up-regulated the protein expression levels of p53, BAX, p21, and MDM2, indicating activating p53 pathway, and when combined with imatinib, nutlin-3 could overcome the defect of imatinib-mediated p53 inhibition. Different form nutlin-3, except for up-regulation of p21 expression, tanshinone IIA had few effects on the protein levels of p53 and BAX at 24 h. However, it was worth noting that tanshinone IIA down-regulated the expression of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 (ser 166) rather than increased them as nutlin-3. When combined with nutlin-3 or nutlin-3 and imatinib, the addition of tanshinone IIA inhibited nutlin-3-mediated up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 (ser 166). MDM2 is the target of p53 and the most important negative regulator of p53, activation of p53 results in up-regulation of MDM2 which in turn degradation of p53, so depth and duration of P53 activation is controlled by this negative feedback loop. The phosphorylated MDM2 at serine 166 site is more likely to enter the nucleus and bind p53, translocate p53 from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, and then mediate ubiquitin degradation of p53. Since tanshinone IIA significantly inhibited nutlin-3-mediated up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 (ser 166) expression, we hypothesized that tanshinone IIA combined with nutlin-3 and imatinib can better retain p53 in the nucleus, which is conducive to induce a deeper and longer-lasting activation of p53.

p53 activity depends on not only the concentration of p53 protein, but also on its location in cells, and only p53 in the nucleus can exert its transcriptional activity. So, we next examine the effects of different drug treatments on p53 location. The p53 location was examined using immunofluorescence microscopy detection. As shown in Figure 4E,F, corresponding with the result that tanshinone IIA inhibited nutlin-3-induced up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 (ser 166), both in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells, tanshinone IIA plus nutlin-3 not only increased p53 expression, but also effectively positioned p53 in the nucleus. More importantly, the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA maximized such effect. Thus, we concluded that three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA most effectively reactivated p53.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib effectively inhibits AKT/mTOR pathway activation

Our previous study showed that imatinib had no inhibitory effects on AKT/mTOR pathway activation in Ph+ ALL cells, which might be one reason for insensitivity of Ph+ ALL cells to imatinib [18,19]. Since nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically potentiates induction of apoptosis of imatinib, we hypothesized that the three-drug combination effectively inhibited AKT/mTOR pathway activation except for p53 reactivation. To confirm our hypothesis, we examined the effect of the three-drug combination on activation of AKT/mTOR pathway using Western blot analysis. We assessed the activation status of the AKT/mTOR pathway by detecting phosphorylation levels of main components in this pathway. As shown in Figure 5A, in SUP-B15 cells, imatinib and nutlin-3 alone had no inhibitory effect on the activation of AKT/mTOR pathway, tanshinone IIA had mild inhibitory effect on it, but tanshinone IIA could not overcome the defect of imatinib's non-inhibitory effect on AKT/mTOR pathway activation. However, thus, defect of imatinib was overcome by nutlin-3. Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA inhibited AKT phosphorylation, but had lower inhibitory effect on its downstream components, mTOR, P70S6, and 4EBP1. The three-drug combination had the strongest inhibitory effect on AKT phosphorylation and had moderate inhibitory effect on its downstream components simultaneously. The results in SUP-B15/RI were not quite consistent with SUP-B15. In SUP-B15/RI (Figure 5B), imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA alone had some effects on AKT phosphorylation, but had few effect on its downstream components. Imatinib plus tanshinone IIA had moderate inhibitory effect on phosphorylation of AKT, mTOR, and P70S6, but no effect on 4EBP1. A combination of imatinib and nutlin-3 also had some inhibitory effect on activation of AKT, mTOR, and P70S6, but no effect on 4EBP1. Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA had more obvious inhibitory effect on activation of AKT, mTOR, and P70S6, but also no inhibitory effect on 4EBP1 activation. Only the three-drug combination could effectively inhibit activation of AKT and its downstream kinases mTOR, P70S6, and 4EBP1 simultaneously. This was consistent with the result in SUP-B15.

Effects of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib on activation of AKT/mTOR, SRC, and BCR/ABL pathway and apoptotic regulatory proteins in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 5.
Effects of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib on activation of AKT/mTOR, SRC, and BCR/ABL pathway and apoptotic regulatory proteins in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.1% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.1% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatments, the cells were collected and total proteins were extracted for Western blot analysis using corresponding antibodies. One representative Western blot was presented. GAPDH was used as the loading control. (A and B) Effects on the activation of AKT/mTOR pathway. (C and D) Effects on the activation of BCR/ABL pathway and SRC kinase. (E and F) Effects on antiapoptotic proteins MCL1, BCL-XL, and apoptotic effector molecule cleaved PARP.

Figure 5.
Effects of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib on activation of AKT/mTOR, SRC, and BCR/ABL pathway and apoptotic regulatory proteins in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

SUP-B15 cells were treated with 0.1% DMSO (control), 2 μM imatinib (I), 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 0.1% DMSO (control), 8 μM imatinib, 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 16 μM tanshinone IIA (T) alone, or in any two- or three-drug combination for 24 h. At the end of the treatments, the cells were collected and total proteins were extracted for Western blot analysis using corresponding antibodies. One representative Western blot was presented. GAPDH was used as the loading control. (A and B) Effects on the activation of AKT/mTOR pathway. (C and D) Effects on the activation of BCR/ABL pathway and SRC kinase. (E and F) Effects on antiapoptotic proteins MCL1, BCL-XL, and apoptotic effector molecule cleaved PARP.

Effects of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib on activation of SRC, BCR/ABL kinase, and its downstream kinase in Ph+ ALL cell lines

BCR/ABL kinase is the trigger of Ph+ ALL, and SRC kinase plays an indispensable role in the pathogenesis of Ph+ ALL. We all know that imatinib inhibits BCR/ABL kinase activity, but has no inhibitory effect on SRC kinase, which is another reason why Ph+ ALL is not sensitive to imatinib. Next, we examined the effects of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib on activation of BCR/ABL and SRC kinase using Western blot analysis to determine their role in synergistic antileukemia effects. As shown in Figure 5C, in SUP-B15 cells, imatinib alone efficiently inhibited activation of BCR/ABL and its downstream kinases STAT5a and MEK, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone had no effects on them, and the addition of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA did not affect the inhibitory effect of imatinib on BCR/ABL signaling. Nutlin was able to inhibit the activation of SRC kinase, and the addition of imatinib or tanshinone IIA enhanced the inhibition of SRC, especially the three-drug combination almost turned off SRC activation. Compared with SUP-B15 cells, the inhibitory effect of imatinib on the BCR/ABL pathway was relatively weaker in SUP-B15/RI cells (Figure 5D). Unlike in SUP-B15 cells, nutlin-3 had less inhibitory effect on SRC kinase activation in SUP-B15/RI cells, and the three-drug combination also could not suppress SRC kinase activation.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib synergistically induces apoptosis by inhibiting expression of antiapoptotic proteins MCL1 and BCL-XL in Ph+ ALL cell lines

Since the inactivation of p53 pathway and continuous activation of AKT pathway are the important reasons of Ph+ ALL cells resistant to imatinib, whether p53 reactivation and AKT pathway inhibition of the three-drug combination can be translated into efficient induction of apoptosis. Our previous apoptosis assay with flow cytometry has demonstrated that the three-drug combination were most effective in inducing apoptosis. Next, we assess its effect on apoptosis by examining its effects on apoptosis regulatory proteins and apoptotic effector molecules using Western blot. We had examined the effect on pro-apoptotic protein BAX in the previous experiment. Here, we examined the effects on expression of antiapoptotic proteins MCL1 and BCL-XL. As shown in Figure 5E, in SUP-B15 cells, imatinib single agent had mild inhibition on MCL1 expression, while nutlin-3 or tanshinone IIA alone had no effects on MCL1 expression. Imatinib combined with nutlin or tanshinone IIA could not enhance its inhibitory effect on MCL1. Only the three-drug combination significantly down-regulated MCL1 expression. As for BCL-XL, all three single agents had no inhibitory effect on it, imatinib combined with tanshinone IIA rather than nutlin inhibited its expression, and nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA also had certain inhibitory effect. Similarly, only the three-drug combination significantly down-regulated its expression. In SUP-B15/RI cells (Figure 5F), the effects of any single-drug or two-drug combination on MCL1 and BCL-XL expression were not very consistent with those in SUP-B15, but it was also only the three-drug combination could effectively inhibit their expression at the same time. Then, we assessed the effects of drug treatment on apoptotic effector cleaved PARP. As shown in Figure 5E,F, no matter in SUP-B15 or SUP-B15/RI cells, the three-drug combination was able to induce most cleaved PARP, which indicated that the three-drug combination was the most effective in inducing apoptosis.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined imatinib induces sustained proliferation inhibition even after drug discontinuation via durable p53 activation in Ph+ ALL cell lines

According to our above data, we speculate that three-drug combination could induce more deeper and durable p53 activation. Next, we will investigate whether the inference is true and whether it translates into durable apoptosis, then durable proliferation inhabitation. Given that only the drug treatment containing nutlin-3 can effectively activate p53 at 24 h, so our subsequent experiment on p53 activation will be limited to the drug treatment containing nutlin-3. Firstly, we treated SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells with nutlin-3, imatinib plus nutlin-3, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, or imatinib plus nutlin-3 and tanshinone IIA for 24 h, then cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs, and adding fresh medium for continuing culture for another 24 and 48 h. At the end of 24 h treatments, 24 and 48 h after drug wash-off, a part of cells were collected to extract total protein for Western bolting assay for p53 activation and apoptosis. As shown in Figure 6A,B, 24 h treatment of nutlin-3 alone, imatinib plus nutlin-3, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, and imatinib combined with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA all induced cells apoptosis, and the effect of the three-drug combination was the most significant. The cell apoptosis induced by nutlin-3 alone or imatinib plus nutlin-3 decreased rapidly after 24 h of drug elution and returned to baseline after 48 h. However, in nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA and the three-drug combination groups, a certain level of apoptosis was still maintained at 24 and 48 h after drug-eluting. These results indicate that the addition of tanshinone IIA is the key to induce the sustained apoptosis. Further results show that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA or the three-drug combination induced sustained activation of p53 pathway (Figure 6A,B), as to AKT pathway, although nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA or the three-drug combination induced sustained inhibition of AKT activation, but no, thus, continuous inhibitory effect on activation of its downstream targets mTOR and 4EBP1 (Supplementary Figure S2). Tanshinone IIA continuously and effectively inhibited nutlin-mediated up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 accounted for sustained p53 activation. Secondly, 4 × 105 SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone, or any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination, using cells treated with 0.1% DMSO as a control. Cell numbers were counted after 24 h. Then, cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs and adding fresh medium for continuing culture. Cell numbers were counted at 24, 72, and 120 h after drug washed off. Finally, the growth curve was drawn. As shown in Figure 6C, in SUP-B15 cells, 24 h single-agent treatment of imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone inhibited cell proliferation, the inhibitory effect of nutlin-3 was the strongest. Compared with imatinib monotherapy, the combination of imatinib and nutlin-3 or tanshinone IIA both enhanced the proliferation inhibitory effect. In two-drug combination, combination of nutlin-3 and tanshinone IIA had the strongest antiproliferation effect; however, antiproliferation effect of three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA was stronger than any two-drug combination. Interestingly, when drug treatments were discontinued, the cells treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or imatinib plus nutlin-3 rapidly restored the proliferative activity, their proliferation activities were nearly equal to that of the control cells after 120 h of drug elution. The proliferative activity of the cells treated with tanshinone IIA or imatinib plus tanshinone IIA recovered slower and lower relatively. Surprisingly, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA or three-drug combination sustained the inhibition of the cell proliferative activity, the cell numbers declined continuously even after drug discontinuation. In SUP-B15/RI cells, we got similar results with SUP-B15 cells (Figure 6D). From above results, we concluded that the addition of tanshinone IIA was the key to induce sustained proliferation inhibitory effect, and three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA maximized this effect.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced sustained apoptosis and proliferation inhibition via durable p53 activation in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

Figure 6.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced sustained apoptosis and proliferation inhibition via durable p53 activation in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

(A) SUP-B15 cells were treated with 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 2 μM imatinib + 2 μM nutlin-3 (IN), 2 μM nutlin-3 + 8 μM tanshinone IIA (TN), or 2 μM imatinib + 2 μM nutlin-3 + 8 μM tanshinone IIA (INT) for 24 h. (B) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM imatinib + 4 μM nutlin-3 (IN), 4 μM nutlin-3 + 16 μM tanshinone IIA (TN), or 8 μM imatinib + 4 μM nutlin-3 + 16 μM tanshinone IIA (INT) for 24 h. Then, cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs and adding fresh medium for continuing culture for another 24 and 48 h. At each point in time, a part of cells were collected to extract total protein for Western bolting assay for MDM2, p-MDM2, p53, BAX, p21, and cleaved PARP. 4 × 105 of SUP-B15 (C) and SUP-B15/RI (D) cells were treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone, or any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination as before, using cells treated with 0.1% DMSO as control. Cell numbers were counted after 24 h. Then, cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs and adding fresh medium for continuing culture. Cell numbers were counted at 24, 72, and 120 h after drugs were washed off, respectively. Finally, the growth curve was drawn. The data were expressed as the means ± SD of three independent experiments.

Figure 6.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib induced sustained apoptosis and proliferation inhibition via durable p53 activation in Ph+ ALL cell lines.

(A) SUP-B15 cells were treated with 2 μM nutlin-3 (N), 2 μM imatinib + 2 μM nutlin-3 (IN), 2 μM nutlin-3 + 8 μM tanshinone IIA (TN), or 2 μM imatinib + 2 μM nutlin-3 + 8 μM tanshinone IIA (INT) for 24 h. (B) SUP-B15/RI cells were treated with 4 μM nutlin-3 (N), 8 μM imatinib + 4 μM nutlin-3 (IN), 4 μM nutlin-3 + 16 μM tanshinone IIA (TN), or 8 μM imatinib + 4 μM nutlin-3 + 16 μM tanshinone IIA (INT) for 24 h. Then, cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs and adding fresh medium for continuing culture for another 24 and 48 h. At each point in time, a part of cells were collected to extract total protein for Western bolting assay for MDM2, p-MDM2, p53, BAX, p21, and cleaved PARP. 4 × 105 of SUP-B15 (C) and SUP-B15/RI (D) cells were treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone, or any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination as before, using cells treated with 0.1% DMSO as control. Cell numbers were counted after 24 h. Then, cells were centrifuged for washing off drugs and adding fresh medium for continuing culture. Cell numbers were counted at 24, 72, and 120 h after drugs were washed off, respectively. Finally, the growth curve was drawn. The data were expressed as the means ± SD of three independent experiments.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exhibits cytotoxicity effects in Ph+ ALL primary cells by activating the p53 pathway and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway

The characteristics of Ph+ ALL patients cannot be fully represented by cell lines. Therefore, we investigated the cytotoxic effects and mechanisms of the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA on primary human Ph+ ALL cells. Given the importance of BCR/ABL1 mutations on clinical therapy and outcome, we tested not only the efficacy of the three-drug combination in primary blast cells isolated from newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL patients, but also its efficacy in primary blast cells from relapsed patients with T315I mutation that confers resistance to most available TKIs. The characteristics of 11 Ph+ ALL and 1 CML with acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patient were presented in Table 1. Referring to the study in the cell lines, we selected 2, 2, and 8 μM as the working concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA in newly diagnosed patients, and 8, 4, and 16 μM as their working concentration in relapsed patients. As shown in Figure 7A, compared with any single drug, the three-drug combination had a significantly stronger cytotoxic effect in seven of eight newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL patients. In the rest one Ph+ ALL patient with E255K mutation, either single-drug or the three-drug combination had weaker cytotoxic effect, cell activities in all groups were more than 50%. In the cells from CML acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patient with T315I mutation, there was no obvious cytotoxic effect in both single-drug and three-drug combination groups, and the viability of each group was above 90%. It was worth noting that, in three relapsed Ph+ ALL patients with T315I, imatinib monotherapy was ineffective, tanshinone IIA monotherapy had mild antileukemia effect only in two cases (#11 and #12), and nutlin-3 alone had medium to strong antileukemia in two cases (#6 and #12) and relatively weak effect in another case (#11). Surprisingly, the combination of the three drugs achieved a very good antileukemia effect in all three patients, significantly stronger than effect of any single drug.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exhibited cytotoxicity effects in Ph+ ALL primary cells by activating the p53 pathway and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway.

Figure 7.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exhibited cytotoxicity effects in Ph+ ALL primary cells by activating the p53 pathway and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway.

The mononuclear cells from 11 Ph+ ALL patients and 1 CML with acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patients were treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone, or any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination for 24 h as in Ph+ ALL cell lines. In cells from newly diagnosed patients, we selected 2, 2, and 8 μM as the working concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA in, and 8, 4, and 16 μM as their working concentrations in, cells from relapsed patients using 0.1% DMSO treatment as the control. At the end of the treatment period, cell viability was determined by the MTT assay (A). As for the number of cells enough samples (#2, #5, #6, #7, #9, and #12), the total proteins were extracted for Western bolting analysis for MDM2/p-MDM2, p53, BAX, p21, MCL1, p-AKT, p-mTOR, p-P70S6, and p-4EBP1 (B).

Figure 7.
Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exhibited cytotoxicity effects in Ph+ ALL primary cells by activating the p53 pathway and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway.

The mononuclear cells from 11 Ph+ ALL patients and 1 CML with acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patients were treated with imatinib, nutlin-3, or tanshinone IIA alone, or any two-drug combination, or three-drug combination for 24 h as in Ph+ ALL cell lines. In cells from newly diagnosed patients, we selected 2, 2, and 8 μM as the working concentrations of imatinib, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA in, and 8, 4, and 16 μM as their working concentrations in, cells from relapsed patients using 0.1% DMSO treatment as the control. At the end of the treatment period, cell viability was determined by the MTT assay (A). As for the number of cells enough samples (#2, #5, #6, #7, #9, and #12), the total proteins were extracted for Western bolting analysis for MDM2/p-MDM2, p53, BAX, p21, MCL1, p-AKT, p-mTOR, p-P70S6, and p-4EBP1 (B).

To explore the mechanism of the antileukemia effect of the three-drug combination in primary leukemia cells, we tested the effect of different drugs on p53 and AKT/mTOR pathways in six patients with adequate sample size, including three newly diagnosed Ph+ ALL patients, two relapsed Ph+ ALL patients with T315I, and the CML acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patient with T315I. As shown in Figure 7B, consistent with the results of cell lines, imatinib treatment led to inhibition of p53 pathway in five of six patients (#2, #5, #6, #7, and #9) and had no inhibitory effect on AKT/mTOR pathway activation in four of six patients (#5, #6, #9, and #12). Nutlin-3 alone increased p53 activation in five of six patients (#2, #5, #7, #9, and #12) and had an inhibitory effect on AKT/mTOR activation in three of six patients (#2, #6, and #12). Tanshinone IIA alone had inhibitory effect on AKT/mTOR pathway in two of six patients (#2 and #6), had few effect on p53 activation, but decreased nutlin-3-mediated up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 when combined with nutlin-3, which may prolong the duration of p53 activation. Compared with any monotherapy and two-drug combinations, only the three-drug combination had the double effect of activating p53 and inhibiting AKT/mTOR pathway simultaneously (#2, #6, #7, #9, and #12), and on the other hand, the three-drug combination effectively suppressed antiapoptosis protein MCL1 expression, which accounted for its strongest cytotoxicity effects. In cells from CML acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patient with T315I (#5), although the three-drug combination increased p53 level (Figure 7B, upper middle), but had no inhibition of AKT/mTOR activation and MCL1 expression (Figure 7B, upper middle), thus did not translate into effective cytotoxic effects (Figure 7A). The above results indicated that the simultaneous activation of p53 and inhibition of AKT/mTOR were the key mechanism for the three-drug combination to exert synergistic antileukemia effects.

Nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined imatinib inhibits growth of Ph+ ALL cells in vivo

We had investigated the synergistic antileukemia effects and mechanisms of three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA on Ph+ ALL cells in vitro, and we next investigated its efficacy in vivo using our mouse model of Ph+ ALL. Our results showed that compared with monotherapy, co-treatment with imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA most effectively decreased the BCR/ABL gene expression (Figure 8A) and the number of CD19-positive cell population (Figure 8B), which indicated the reduction in the leukemia burden in vivo. Importantly, both single-drug and three-drug co-treatment had no significant effect on mice's diet, water intake, and body weight, indicating that the drugs including co-treatment were well tolerated and the three-drug co-treatment did not increase the toxic side effects. These results demonstrated that the three-drug combination had significant antileukemia efficacy in vivo.

The in vivo antileukemia effect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib in Ph+ ALL xenograft mice.

Figure 8.
The in vivo antileukemia effect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib in Ph+ ALL xenograft mice.

SUP-B15 cell xenograft mice were injected intraperitoneally with 10 mg/kg.d imatinib, 10 mg/kg.d nutlin-3, 20 mg/kg.d tanshinone IIA alone, or a combination of the three drugs over a 14-day period. One week after discontinuing drugs, the mice were killed, and bone marrow samples were obtained. (A) The BCR/ABL gene expression was detected using semi-quantitative RT-PCR analysis. (B) CD19-positive cells were detected by flow cytometry using antihuman CD19 PE-Cyanines.

Figure 8.
The in vivo antileukemia effect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib in Ph+ ALL xenograft mice.

SUP-B15 cell xenograft mice were injected intraperitoneally with 10 mg/kg.d imatinib, 10 mg/kg.d nutlin-3, 20 mg/kg.d tanshinone IIA alone, or a combination of the three drugs over a 14-day period. One week after discontinuing drugs, the mice were killed, and bone marrow samples were obtained. (A) The BCR/ABL gene expression was detected using semi-quantitative RT-PCR analysis. (B) CD19-positive cells were detected by flow cytometry using antihuman CD19 PE-Cyanines.

Discussion

TKIs significantly improve the prognosis of Ph+ leukemia. However, the response rate and duration for Ph+ ALL to TKI is lower and shorter than that of CML, and relapse and resistance are continuing problems. Apart from mutations in the BCR–ABL KD, many mechanisms are involved in TKI resistance. It had been shown that the inactivation of p53 and continuous activation of AKT/mTOR pathway under TKI treatment contributed to TKI resistance in Ph+ ALL. Targeted inhibition of AKT/mTOR pathway and reactivation of p53 pathway may be a promising strategy to overcome TKI resistance. Nutlin-3, targeting the MDM2–p53 interaction, is a novel potential therapeutic strategy to reactivate p53 in cancer with wild-type p53. Given most ALL expressed wild-type p53, but the protein does not function properly due to overexpression of MDM2 [35,36], it is warranted to use nutlin-3 to reactivate p53 in ALL including Ph+ ALL. It has been reported that nutlin3 exerted synergistic antileukemia in Ph+ ALL [37,38]. Tanshinone IIA was reported to exert antitumor activities in many cancer including leukemia by inhibiting the AKT pathway and activating the p53 pathway. In our previous study, we found that tanshinone IIA combined with imatinib exerted synergistic antileukemia effect in Ph+ ALL.

In the present study, we hypothesized that the combination of imatinib with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA could result in a synergistic cytotoxic response in Ph+ ALL by reactivating p53 and inhibiting the AKT/mTOR pathway. This hypothesis was confirmed in our results, indicating that the cytotoxic effect of imatinib was synergistically increased when combined with nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA in imatinib-sensitive and -resistant Ph+ ALL cell lines, primary leukemia cells, and in vivo. Compared with any single-drug or two-drug combination, the three-drug combination maximized the cytotoxic effect and induced the most durable cell proliferation inhibition. Further mechanism study confirmed that the maximal cytotoxic effect of the three-drug combination was achieved by durable, deep reactivation of p53 pathway and inhibition of AKT/mTOR pathway.

In consistent with previous reports [17,39], imatinib treatment led to p53 inhibition in imatinib-sensitive and -resistant Ph+ ALL cell lines and most of the primary patient cells, with the decrease in p53 and its target protein level. Nutlin-3 could overcome the shortcoming of imatinib by targeted inhibition of MDM2–p53 interaction. However, nutlin-3 significantly feedback up-regulated MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2(sre166) levels at the same time, which in turn promoted the degradation of p53 and quenched cellular p53 activity, thus limit the depth and duration of p53 activation [40], which may explain why the synergy effect of nutlin-3 and imatinib was not very strong. It was different from nutlin-3, tanshinone IIA activated p53 pathway through transcriptional regulation of p53, and the most important thing was that tanshinone IIA reduced MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2 (sre186) levels. When combined with nutlin-3, tanshinone IIA significantly inhibited nutlin-3-mediated feedback up-regulation of MDM2 and phosphorylated MDM2(ser166) levels, leading to more p53 stay within the nucleus more longer, thus mediated deeper and longer-lasting p53 reactivation, whose result was inducing a large number of cell apoptosis. Even if the drug discontinued, elevated p53 reactivation and apoptosis would continue, which explained why nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA induced durable proliferation inhibition.

Now, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA induced depth-reactivated p53, but why did not it maximize the cytotoxic effect? This attributed to several reasons. Firstly, BCR/ABL kinase is the trigger of Ph+ ALL, and targeted inhibition of BCR/ABL is the cornerstone for the treatment of Ph+ ALL. Our results showed that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA did not inhibit BCR/ABL and its downstream kinases, so it is difficult to achieve the optimal therapeutic effect, addition of imatinib just overcame this defect of nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, so as to improve cytotoxic effect. Secondly, another important reason of poor response of Ph+ ALL to imatinib is that imatinib has less inhibitory effect on the activation of AKT/mTOR pathway. AKT/mTOR is a pro-survival signaling for cancer and plays vital roles in tumorigenesis and drug resistance. Simultaneous targeted inhabitation of AKT/mTOR pathway is an important strategy for improved response rates of imatinib [4145]. Our results from both cell lines and primary leukemia cells illustrated that the inhibitory effect of the three-drug combination on AKT/mTOR pathways was superior to nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA. Our results from primary cells from the CML acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patients with T315I revealed that even though the three-drug combination induced a certain degree of increase in p53 protein, no inhibition on AKT/mTOR activation, and no cooperative cytotoxic effect, which once again proved that the importance of AKT/mTOR inhibition in Ph+ ALL therapy. Additionally, another important role of inhibition of AKT activation is that phosphorylated AKT on serine 473 is responsible for phosphorylating MDM2 on serine 166 which increases MDM2 translocation from the cytoplasm into the nucleus, then binds and translocates p53 from the nucleus into the cytoplasm, leading to p53 degradation [46]. Thus, inhibition of AKT activation increases nucleus levels of p53 and increases p53 activity. Due to the three-drug combination induced better inhibition of AKT phosphorylation (ser473) than nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, thus better translocate p53 in the nucleus, and be more conducive to p53 reactivation. This could explain why imatinib inhibited p53, but the addition of imatnib enhanced rather than weakened p53 reactivation mediated by nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA because of better AKT inhibition. This also explain why nutlin-3 alone increased p53 protein as nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA or the three-drug combination, but in immunofluorescence localization detection of p53 protein, the level of nutlin-3-induced p53 protein seemed lower because without effective AKT inhibition, nutlin-3-induced p53 proteins were dispersed in the cytoplasm rather than concentrated in the nucleus. As to the result of primary cells from the CML acute lymphocytic leukemia transformation patients with T315I, another reason for poor response to the three-drug combination may be that without effective AKT phosphorylation inhibition on serine 473, there was no effective MDM2 phosphorylation inhibition on serine 166, so elevated p53 could not translocate into the nucleus and function effectively, which was evidenced by that BAX and p21 protein did not increase with the increase in p53.

Finally, the bcl2 family proteins are key regulators of mitochondrial pathway for apoptosis, and the ratio of antiapoptotic proteins to pro-apoptosis proteins determines cell fate. Compared with any single-agent or two-drug combination, the three-drug combination not only effectively increased expression of pro-apoptotic protein BAX, but also most effectively inhibited the expression of antiapoptotic protein BCL-XL and MCL1, which is one reason why three drugs most effectively induced apoptosis.

Our data showed that the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA most effectively induced apoptosis both in SUP-B15 and SUP-B15/RI cells, but SUP-B15 cells were more sensitive than SUP-B15/RI cell to this combined treatment. We think that three reasons account for this phenomenon. The first is that SUP-B15/RI cells is imatinib-resistant cells, and its sensitivity to imatinib is lower than that of SUP-B15 cells. The second is that nutlin-3 alone or combination containing nutlin-3 can effectively inhibit SRC kinase activation in SUP-B15 cells but not in SUP-B15/RI cells. The last one is MDM2 was overexpressed in SUP-B15/RI cells (Supplementary Figure S2), which will weaken the role of nutlin-3.

In our study, we found that nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, especially the three-drug combination of imatinib, nutlin-3 plus tanshinone IIA, induced sustained cell proliferation inhibition even after drug discontinuation, we think it was the result of continuous p53 reactivation because of continuous MDM2/p-MDM2 inhibition. However, we could not rule out other reasons accounting for it, and it may be the result of targeted inhibition on leukemia stem cells or initial leukemia cell proliferation, which is focus point we need to further research to make clear.

In summary, our findings provide a strong warrant for further clinical investigation of combination of TKI, nutlin-3, and tanshinone IIA in Ph+ ALL to effectively eliminate minimal residual disease, thus get deeper and more lasting remission. Small-molecule MDM2 antagonists plus tanshinone IIA leading to significant apoptosis may synergize with current TKI-based therapies in Ph+ ALL patients and may represent a valuable strategy for TKI-resistant patients.

Abbreviations

     
  • ANOVA

    analysis of variance

  •  
  • ATCC

    American Type Culture Collection

  •  
  • BM

    bone marrow

  •  
  • BMMCs

    bone marrow mononuclear cells

  •  
  • CI

    combination index

  •  
  • CML

    chronic myeloid leukemia

  •  
  • DAPI

    4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole

  •  
  • FBS

    fetal bovine serum

  •  
  • ITP

    idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura

  •  
  • KD

    kinase domain

  •  
  • MTT

    3-(4,5-Dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl-2H-tetrazolium bromide

  •  
  • NOD/SCID

    nonobese diabetic/severe combined immunodeficiency

  •  
  • PB

    peripheral blood

  •  
  • PBMCs

    peripheral blood mononuclear cells

  •  
  • Ph+ ALL

    Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia

  •  
  • PI

    propidium iodide

  •  
  • TKIs

    tyrosine kinase inhibitors

Author Contribution

Y.G. designed the experiments, co-ordinated the study, and drafted the manuscript. Y.L. involved in data analysis and drafting the manuscript. B.X. and H.-B.M. participated in collection of the clinic samples. X.-O.H. and F.-F.W. conducted the experiments. Y.-P.G. conceived the study and participated in designing of the experiments and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding

This work was supported by the grants from National Natural Science Foundation of China [no. 81400123] and Foundation of Institutes of Health Department of Sichuan Province [no. JH2014080].

Competing Interests

The Authors declare that there are no competing interests associated with the manuscript.

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Author notes

*

Co-first authors.