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Targeting of the MNK-eIF4E axis in blast crisis chronic myeloid leukemia inhibits leukemia stem cell function

Lim S, Saw TY, Zhang M, Janes MR, Nacro K, Hill J, Lim AQ, Chang CT, Fruman DA, Rizzieri DA, Tan SY, Fan H, Chuah CT, Ong ST

Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, June 2013, 18;110(25):E2298-307

Abstract

Chronic myeloid leukemia responds well to therapy targeting the oncogenic fusion protein BCR-ABL1 in chronic phase, but is resistant to treatment after it progresses to blast crisis (BC). BC is characterized by elevated β-catenin signaling in granulocyte macrophage progenitors (GMPs), which enables this population to function as leukemia stem cells (LSCs) and act as a reservoir for resistance. Because normal hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and LSCs depend on β-catenin signaling for self-renewal, strategies to specifically target BC will require identification of drugable factors capable of distinguishing between self-renewal in BC LSCs and normal HSCs. Here, we show that the MAP kinase interacting serine/threonine kinase (MNK)-eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4E (eIF4E) axis is overexpressed in BC GMPs but not normal HSCs, and that MNK kinase-dependent eIF4E phosphorylation at serine 209 activates β-catenin signaling in BC GMPs. Mechanistically, eIF4E overexpression and phosphorylation leads to increased β-catenin protein synthesis, whereas MNK-dependent eIF4E phosphorylation is required for nuclear translocation and activation of β-catenin. Accordingly, we found that a panel of small molecule MNK kinase inhibitors prevented eIF4E phosphorylation, β-catenin activation, and BC LSC function in vitro and in vivo. Our findings identify the MNK-eIF4E axis as a specific and critical regulator of BC self-renewal, and suggest that pharmacologic inhibition of the MNK kinases may be therapeutically useful in BC chronic myeloid leukemia.


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