A subset of cancers across multiple histologies with predominantly poor outcomes use the alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) mechanism to maintain telomere length, which can be identified with robust biomarkers. ALT has been reported to be prevalent in high-risk neuroblastoma and certain sarcomas, and ALT cancers are a major clinical challenge that lack targeted therapeutic approaches. Here, we found ALT in a variety of pediatric and adult cancer histologies, including carcinomas. Patient-derived ALT cancer cell lines from neuroblastomas, sarcomas, and carcinomas were hypersensitive to the p53 reactivator eprenetapopt (APR-246) relative to telomerase-positive (TA+) models. Constitutive telomere damage signaling in ALT cells activated ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM) kinase to phosphorylate p53, which resulted in selective ALT sensitivity to APR-246. Treatment with APR-246 combined with irinotecan achieved complete responses in mice xenografted with ALT neuroblastoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, and breast cancer and delayed tumor growth in ALT colon cancer xenografts, while the combination had limited efficacy in TA+ tumor models. A large number of adult and pediatric cancers present with the ALT phenotype, which confers a uniquely high sensitivity to reactivation of p53. These data support clinical evaluation of a combinatorial approach using APR-246 and irinotecan in ALT patients with cancer.
This work demonstrates that constitutive activation of ATM in chemotherapy-refractory ALT cancer cells renders them hypersensitive to reactivation of p53 function by APR-246, indicating a potential strategy to overcome therapeutic resistance.