Potent FLT3 inhibitors, such as quizartinib (AC220), have shown promise in treating acute myeloid leukemia (AML) containing FLT3 internal tandem duplication (ITD) mutations. However, responses are not durable and resistance develops within months. In this study, we outline a two-step model of resistance whereby extrinsic microenvironmental proteins FLT3 ligand (FL) and fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) protect FLT3-ITD+ MOLM14 cells from AC220, providing time for subsequent accumulation of ligand-independent resistance mechanisms. FL directly attenuated AC220 inhibition of FLT3, consistent with previous reports. Conversely, FGF2 promoted resistance through activation of FGFR1 and downstream MAPK effectors; these resistant cells responded synergistically to combinatorial inhibition of FGFR1 and FLT3. Removing FL or FGF2 from ligand-dependent resistant cultures transiently restored sensitivity to AC220, but accelerated acquisition of secondary resistance via reactivation of FLT3 and RAS/MAPK signaling. FLT3-ITD AML patients treated with AC220 developed increased FGF2 expression in marrow stromal cells, which peaked prior to overt clinical relapse and detection of resistance mutations. Overall, these results support a strategy of early combination therapy to target early survival signals from the bone marrow microenvironment, in particular FGF2, to improve the depth of response in FLT3-ITD AML. Cancer Res; 76(22); 6471–82. ©2016 AACR.

Fms-like tyrosine kinase 3 (FLT3) is a class III receptor tyrosine kinase expressed on early hematopoietic stem and progenitors cells and is important for hematopoiesis. FLT3 is activated by its ligand, FLT3 ligand (FL), which promotes receptor dimerization and growth via activation of the STAT5, Ras/MAPK, and Akt pathways (1). FLT3 is frequently mutated in acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The most common genetic alteration is the internal tandem duplication (ITD) in the juxtamembrane domain of the protein (2), which disrupts the autoinhibitory mechanism of the juxtamembrane domain and results in chronic FLT3 activation (3). FLT3-ITDs are present in ∼20% of newly diagnosed AML and lead to increased risk of relapse (4, 5). FLT3 is also frequently mutated by point mutations in the activation loop of the protein, most commonly at D835, and is present in ∼10% of newly diagnosed AML (6, 7). However, the prognostic significance of these kinase domain mutations is less clear.

The success of tyrosine kinase inhibitors, such as imatinib, in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) generated considerable enthusiasm for FLT3 inhibitors in AML. Early generation FLT3 inhibitors only achieved a transient reduction in peripheral blasts, whereas bone marrow blasts were less affected (8, 9). Recently, quizartinib (AC220), a more potent FLT3 inhibitor, was developed and demonstrated a 50% composite complete remission rate in phase II clinical trials (10). However, despite a higher response rate, the durability of AC220 response is still quite limited, and most patients develop resistance after a few months of therapy. Similar to resistance in CML, point mutations in FLT3 have been shown to decrease affinity of AC220 for its target, leading to clinical resistance (11–13). In particular, mutations of the “gatekeeper” residue F691L and mutations in the activation loop (the region around D835) confer resistance to AC220 both in vitro and in vivo (12). However, resistance also occurs in the absence of FLT3 mutations, although the nature of this resistance is less clear.

Recently, the ligand for FLT3 (FL) was also found to promote resistance to FLT3 inhibitors (14). FL ligand expression increases during therapy with FLT3 inhibitors, providing one potential explanation of why leukemia cells in the bone marrow are relatively more resistant to FLT3 inhibitors (14). However, FL is likely not the only component of the bone marrow microenvironment that provides sanctuary to leukemia cells. We hypothesized that other proteins from the bone marrow microenvironment would promote resistance to FLT3 inhibitors and tested known microenvironmental cytokines, growth factors, and soluble proteins for their ability to protect the FLT3-ITD AML cell line, MOLM14, from AC220 treatment. Fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) was one of the most effective proteins in promoting survival of MOLM14 cells in the presence of AC220, and led to resistance in extended cultures. FGF2 is highly expressed by bone marrow stromal cells and plays an active role in hematopoietic colony formation in vitro (15, 16) and hematopoiesis in vivo (17, 18). Here, we determine the mechanism of FGF2-mediated resistance in FLT3-ITD AML and contrast it with resistance induced by FL.

Cell lines

MOLM14 cells were generously provided by Dr. Yoshinobu Matsuo (Fujisaki Cell Center, Hayashibara Biochemical Labs; ref. 19). BaF3 cells with retrovirally introduced FLT3-ITD were created as previously described (20), and then retrovirally transfected with empty pMX vector or human FGFR1 in pMX. The transfected cells were selected with 1 μg/mL puromycin. The human stromal cell lines HS-5 and HS-27 were kindly provided by Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA). Cell lines were maintained in RPMI1640 media supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum (FBS), 100 U/mL penicillin/100 μg/mL streptomycin, and 2 mmol/L l-glutamine (R10) at 37°C in 5% CO2, except MOLM13, which was grown in RPMI supplemented with 20% FBS (R20). All cell lines were authenticated by extensive functional and genetic analysis in our lab.

Viability assays

MOLM14 cells were incubated in media supplemented with recombinant proteins obtained from Peprotech at indicated concentrations and treated as described. Viability was assessed with MTS reagent, CellTiter 96 AQueous One Solution Cell Proliferation Assay from Promega Corporation, or with Guava ViaCount reagent and cytometer (Millipore).

FGF2- and FL-dependent–resistant cultures

MOLM14 cells (107) in 10 mL of R10 media, or supplemented with FGF2 or FLT3 ligand (FL) at 10 ng/mL, were cultured with 10 nmol/L quizartinib. Media, recombinant protein, and quizartinib were replaced every 2 to 3 days. Cell viability was evaluated every 2 to 3 days using Guava ViaCount reagent.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors

Quizartinib (AC220) and sorafenib were purchased from LC labs. PD173074 was purchased from Selleck. Ponatinib was provided by Ariad Pharmaceuticals. Crenolanib was provided by AROG pharmaceuticals.

siRNA and kinase inhibitors

siRNAs were purchased from Thermo Fisher Scientific Dharmacon RNAi Technologies. MOLM14 cells were washed in PBS, resuspended in siPORT (120 mmol/L Trehalose, 20 mmol/L HEPES, 1 mmol/L Myo-Inositol, 1 mmol/L KCl, 1 mmol/L MgCl2, 1 mmol/L K2HPO4, 0.4 mmol/L KH2PO4, 2.14 mmol/L KOH, and 1 mmol/L glutathione; ref. 21) at 1:6 dilution, and electroporated using a square wave protocol (350V, 1.5 seconds, 2 pulses, 0.1-second interval) in a BioRad Gene Pulser XCell. After 48 hours, FGF2 and quizartinib were added and viability was assessed with MTS after another 48 hours.

Primary AML samples

Frozen viable cells from FLT3-ITD AML patients were washed in IMDM with 20% heat-inactivated FBS and then cultured overnight in RPMI with 25% FBS, 100 U/mL penicillin/100 μg/mL streptomycin, 2 mmol/L l-glutamine, 10 ng/mL IL3, 10 ng/mL SCF, 10 ng/mL G-CSF, and 10 ng/mL GM-CSF (22). The cells were washed the following day. Fresh FLT3-ITD AML mononuclear cells were purified over Ficoll gradient as described (23). Primary cells (7 × 106) were plated in 96-well plates with R10 alone or supplemented with FGF2, and then treated with AC220. Viability was measured after 72 hours by MTS.

Immunoblot analysis

Cells were treated as described, washed in PBS, and lysed in lysis buffer (Cell Signaling Technology) supplemented with Complete protease inhibitor (Roche) and phosphatase inhibitor cocktail-2 (Sigma-Aldrich). Equal amounts of protein were fractionated on 4% to 15% Tris-glycine polyacrylamide gels (Criterion gels, Bio-Rad), transferred to PVDF membranes, and probed with antibodies against FGFR1, pSTAT5, STAT5, pMEK1/2, MEK1/2, pERK1/2, ERK1/2, pS6, and S6 (Cell Signaling Technology). Other antibodies: actin (MAB1501, Millipore), FLT3 (S-18, Santa Cruz Biotechnology), FGF2 (SC-79, Santa Cruz Biotechnology), and FL (EP1140Y, AbCam).

Sequencing

Primers were used to amplify the FLT3 kinase domain and for sequencing as described (12). Next-generation sequencing of resistant MOLM14 cells was performed as previously described (24).

Transwell assays

HS-5 and HS-27 cells (105) were plated in 6-well plates in 2 mL media. Transwells (1 μm) were then placed over the stromal cells and 105 MOLM14 cells were plated in 2 mL media (4 mL total). The cocultures were then treated with AC220 10 nmol/L and PD173074 250 nmol/L individually or in combination. After 2 days, the Transwells with MOLM14 were removed and 2 mL fresh media and inhibitor added to stroma below. The cocultures were incubated for another 2 days and MOLM14 cells assessed for annexin-5 staining by GuavaNexin (Millipore). The underlying stromal cultures were evaluated by the MTS assay for viability. Each condition was performed in triplicate.

IHC

All patient specimens were obtained after informed consent on protocols approved by the Institutional Review Board of Oregon Health and Science University. IHC for FGF2 was performed as previously described (25). Slides were scanned with an Aperio ScanScope AT microscope using 20× objective (Vista). The FGF2 staining was then quantitated with Aperio ImageScope software using a macro kindly provided by Dr. Brian Ruffell in Dr. Lisa Coussens' laboratory at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR.

Statistical analyses

Graphical and statistical data were generated using either Microsoft Excel or GraphPad Prism (GraphPad Software). Continuous variables were compared by Student t test for two independent samples using Microsoft Excel. A P value of <0.05 was considered statistically significant.

FGF2 protects MOLM14 cells from AC220

To screen for microenvironmental factors that protect AML cells from FLT3 inhibitors, we cultured MOLM14 cells with graded concentrations of selected proteins expressed in the bone marrow microenvironment (Agarwal and colleagues, manuscript in Revision) in the presence of 10 nmol/L AC220. Viability was assessed after 2 days by the MTS assay and averaged over all concentrations (1, 10, and 100 ng/mL). FL and FGF2 were the only proteins that increased viability >2 standard deviations and are highlighted in red (Fig. 1A). The most protective molecule in this screen was FL, which has been previously reported to attenuate the effect of FLT3 inhibitors (14), providing an internal positive control. We confirmed the results using lower concentrations (1 ng/mL and 0.1 ng/mL, see Supplement for discussion of physiologic concentration) and found again that FL and FGF2 were the most protective overall (Fig. 1B). We focused our attention on FGF2, which is highly expressed in bone marrow (25), and FL as two distinct mechanisms of ligand-mediated resistance.

Figure 1.

Microenvironmental screen identifies FL and FGF2 as protective molecules for MOLM14 cells, and they accelerate development of AC220 resistance in extended culture. A, MOLM14 cells were added to a 384-well plate containing cytokines, chemokines, and growth factors with 10 nmol/L AC220 (quizartinib). Viability was measured using MTS reagent, averaged over all concentrations (1, 10, and 100 ng/mL), and the results sorted according to highest average viability. Average viability >2 standard deviations above the mean are highlighted in red and by an asterisk. B, MOLM14 cells were cultured in lower concentrations of recombinant proteins (1 and 0.1 ng/mL) in 96-well plates plus 10 nmol/L AC220. Viability was assessed after 48 hours with MTS reagent and data plotted as a percentage of the respective untreated control. All wells were plated in triplicate with SD indicated by error bars. C, MOLM14 cells were cultured continuously in 10 nmol/L AC220 with FL, FGF2, or media alone as indicated (N = 4 for each). Fresh media, AC220, and cytokine were replaced every 2 to 3 days over the indicated time period. Viable cell numbers were analyzed every 2 to 3 days with Guava ViaCount.

Figure 1.

Microenvironmental screen identifies FL and FGF2 as protective molecules for MOLM14 cells, and they accelerate development of AC220 resistance in extended culture. A, MOLM14 cells were added to a 384-well plate containing cytokines, chemokines, and growth factors with 10 nmol/L AC220 (quizartinib). Viability was measured using MTS reagent, averaged over all concentrations (1, 10, and 100 ng/mL), and the results sorted according to highest average viability. Average viability >2 standard deviations above the mean are highlighted in red and by an asterisk. B, MOLM14 cells were cultured in lower concentrations of recombinant proteins (1 and 0.1 ng/mL) in 96-well plates plus 10 nmol/L AC220. Viability was assessed after 48 hours with MTS reagent and data plotted as a percentage of the respective untreated control. All wells were plated in triplicate with SD indicated by error bars. C, MOLM14 cells were cultured continuously in 10 nmol/L AC220 with FL, FGF2, or media alone as indicated (N = 4 for each). Fresh media, AC220, and cytokine were replaced every 2 to 3 days over the indicated time period. Viable cell numbers were analyzed every 2 to 3 days with Guava ViaCount.

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To test the protective effects of FGF2 and FL over a longer duration, MOLM14 cells were cultured over many weeks with 10 nmol/L AC220, media, FL, and FGF2 replaced every 2 to 3 days. The addition of FL or FGF2 promoted outgrowth in all replicates (N = 4) at around 6 weeks (Fig. 1C). In contrast, only 2 of 4 replicates cultured in media without FGF2 or FL developed resistance, and it took nearly 12 weeks, providing strong evidence that continuous exposure to protective ligand accelerates development of resistance.

FGF2 activates FGFR1 to protect FLT3-ITD AML cells

To test if FGF2 protects cells through activation of an FGF receptor (FGFR), we treated MOLM14 cells with the pan-FGFR inhibitor PD173074 in the presence of FGF2 and AC220. Even at doses as low as 25 nmol/L, PD173074 was able to attenuate the protective effect of FGF2 (Fig. 2A). Because FGF2 is capable of binding multiple FGFRs (26), we measured the relative expression of FGFR 1–4 by Taqman qPCR and found that FGFR1 was the most highly expressed FGFR in MOLM14 cells (Supplementary Fig. S1A). siRNA targeting blocked the protective effect of FGF2 in the presence of AC220 (Fig. 2B) and efficiently reduced mRNA and protein expression (Supplementary Fig. S1B and Fig. 2C). In contrast, siRNAs targeting FGFR2, FGFR3, and FGFR4 had no effect on FGF2 protection (Fig. 2B and Supplementary Fig. S1). To further test the role of FGFR1, we took advantage of the fact that BaF3 cells do not express FGFR 1–4 (27). BaF3 cells expressing human FLT3-ITD (20) were subjected to a second retroviral infection with either an empty pMX vector or pMX containing human FGFR1. Expression of FGFR1 was confirmed by Western blot (Fig. 2D). FGF2 was only protective against AC220 when FGFR1 was also expressed (Fig. 2E and F). We tested whether FGF2 protected two other FLT3-ITD AML cell lines (MOLM13 and MV-4-11) with lower FGFR expression from AC220 (Supplementary Fig. S2A–S2D), but found no significant protective effect in these lines, indicating that FGFR expression is a prerequisite for FGF2-mediated protection.

Figure 2.

FGF2 protection of MOLM14 cells is mediated by FGFR1. A, MOLM14 cells were cultured in media alone or media supplemented with 10 ng/mL FGF2, treated with 10 nmol/L AC220, and exposed to 25, 50, and 100 nmol/L of the FGFR inhibitor PD173074. Viability was measured by the MTS assay after 48 hours and normalized to their respective untreated control (media alone, FGF2, 25 nmol/L PD173074, etc.) B, MOLM14 cells were electroporated with siRNAs targeting FGFR1, FGFR2, FGFR3, FGFR4, and a nonspecific (NS) control. After 48 hours, the cells were pelleted and resuspended in media ± FGF2 and ± 10 nmol/L AC220, and viability assessed by MTS after 48 hours. *, P < 0.01 by t test. C, Western blot was used to evaluate FGFR1 protein expression after siRNA (see also Supplementary Fig. S1). D, BaF3 cells expressing FLT3-ITD (20) were retrovirally transfected with either empty pMX vector (pMX neg) or vector containing FGFR1, selected with puromycin, and analyzed by Western blot to show FGFR1 expression. The FLT3-ITD Baf3 cells with empty pMX vector (E) or pMX (F) with FGFR1 were then treated with a gradient of AC220 in either media alone or supplemented with 10 ng/mL FGF2. Viability was assessed after 48 hours with MTS reagent and data plotted as a percentage of the respective untreated control. All cell line experiments were performed in triplicate and error bars indicate SD. Thawed frozen viable (see Materials and Methods) and fresh primary FLT3-ITD AML samples were plated with media alone (no ligand) or with FGF2 at 1, 10, and 100 ng/mL concentration. The cells were then exposed to a gradient of AC220 and viability was measured after 72 hours by MTS. G, an example of ex vivo FGF2-mediated protection from AC220 with a primary FLT3-ITD AML sample. H, the area under the curve was calculated for 23 patient samples in the absence or presence of FGF2 ligand (see G) and graphed with mean and standard error of the mean shown. One-tailed t tests were performed with P values indicated by *, <0.05; **, <0.005; ***, 0.0007.

Figure 2.

FGF2 protection of MOLM14 cells is mediated by FGFR1. A, MOLM14 cells were cultured in media alone or media supplemented with 10 ng/mL FGF2, treated with 10 nmol/L AC220, and exposed to 25, 50, and 100 nmol/L of the FGFR inhibitor PD173074. Viability was measured by the MTS assay after 48 hours and normalized to their respective untreated control (media alone, FGF2, 25 nmol/L PD173074, etc.) B, MOLM14 cells were electroporated with siRNAs targeting FGFR1, FGFR2, FGFR3, FGFR4, and a nonspecific (NS) control. After 48 hours, the cells were pelleted and resuspended in media ± FGF2 and ± 10 nmol/L AC220, and viability assessed by MTS after 48 hours. *, P < 0.01 by t test. C, Western blot was used to evaluate FGFR1 protein expression after siRNA (see also Supplementary Fig. S1). D, BaF3 cells expressing FLT3-ITD (20) were retrovirally transfected with either empty pMX vector (pMX neg) or vector containing FGFR1, selected with puromycin, and analyzed by Western blot to show FGFR1 expression. The FLT3-ITD Baf3 cells with empty pMX vector (E) or pMX (F) with FGFR1 were then treated with a gradient of AC220 in either media alone or supplemented with 10 ng/mL FGF2. Viability was assessed after 48 hours with MTS reagent and data plotted as a percentage of the respective untreated control. All cell line experiments were performed in triplicate and error bars indicate SD. Thawed frozen viable (see Materials and Methods) and fresh primary FLT3-ITD AML samples were plated with media alone (no ligand) or with FGF2 at 1, 10, and 100 ng/mL concentration. The cells were then exposed to a gradient of AC220 and viability was measured after 72 hours by MTS. G, an example of ex vivo FGF2-mediated protection from AC220 with a primary FLT3-ITD AML sample. H, the area under the curve was calculated for 23 patient samples in the absence or presence of FGF2 ligand (see G) and graphed with mean and standard error of the mean shown. One-tailed t tests were performed with P values indicated by *, <0.05; **, <0.005; ***, 0.0007.

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FGFR1 is the most highly expressed FGFR in cytogenetically normal AML, with expression comparable with FLT3 and AXL, another receptor tyrosine kinase reported to mediate resistance in FLT3-ITD AML (28, 29; Supplementary Fig. S2E). To test if FGF2 protects primary FLT3-ITD AML samples from AC220, we cultured fresh and thawed frozen viable primary AML cells with media alone (no ligand), or supplemented with FGF2, and treated with a gradient of AC220. FGF2 was highly protective of a subset of primary AML samples (example shown in Fig. 2G), and enhanced viability in a dose-dependent and statistically significant manner (Fig. 2H).

FGF2-mediated resistance is overcome with combined FGFR and FLT3 inhibition

MOLM14 cells grown in continuous 10 nmol/L AC220 plus FGF2 or FL that developed resistance (Fig. 1C) are henceforth referred to as FGF2- or FL-dependent resistant cultures. We tested the sensitivity of these resistant cells to multiple combinations of AC220 and the FGFR inhibitor PD173074 by creating a 64-well matrix with a gradient of AC220 on one axis, and overlaying a gradient of PD173074 on the other axis. The results are shown as a surface plot, with corresponding linear graphs of monotherapy AC220, monotherapy PD173074, and an equimolar combination of AC220 and PD173074 to highlight synergy (Fig. 3A–C). Naïve MOLM14 cells were exquisitely sensitive to AC220 at low nanomolar concentrations but were not affected by PD173074 in the absence of FGF2 (Fig. 3A; see also Supplementary Fig. S3). In contrast, FGF2-dependent–resistant cultures were protected from AC220 at higher AC220 concentrations, and the addition of PD173074 was highly synergistic in overcoming this protection (Fig. 3B). FL-dependent resistant cultures had a shifted AC220 dose–response curve (Fig. 3C), but resistance was overcome by higher doses of AC220 (>10 nmol/L) and PD173074 had minimal additional effect.

Figure 3.

FGF2-dependent resistant cultures respond synergistically to combined FLT3 and FGFR inhibition. A–C, naïve MOLM14 cells in media alone were exposed to a matrix of an AC220 gradient (0, 1.4, 4, 12, 37, 111, 333, 1,000 nmol/L) overlaid with the FGFR inhibitor PD173074 (0, 1.4, 4, 12, 37, 111, 333, 1,000 nmol/L) and compared with FGF2- (B) and FL-dependent (C) resistant MOLM14 cells (Fig. 1C) in the same conditions. Viability was measured after 48 hours, and average viability graphed as surface plots with gray scale denoting 20% increments. Graphs at right indicate viability with AC220 alone, PD173074 alone, and equimolar combination to highlight synergy. Calculation of the combination index is included in Supplementary Table S1 and synergy (CI < 0.1) indicated by an asterisk. All experiments were done in triplicate with average viability scaled to untreated condition (100%). Error bars, SD.

Figure 3.

FGF2-dependent resistant cultures respond synergistically to combined FLT3 and FGFR inhibition. A–C, naïve MOLM14 cells in media alone were exposed to a matrix of an AC220 gradient (0, 1.4, 4, 12, 37, 111, 333, 1,000 nmol/L) overlaid with the FGFR inhibitor PD173074 (0, 1.4, 4, 12, 37, 111, 333, 1,000 nmol/L) and compared with FGF2- (B) and FL-dependent (C) resistant MOLM14 cells (Fig. 1C) in the same conditions. Viability was measured after 48 hours, and average viability graphed as surface plots with gray scale denoting 20% increments. Graphs at right indicate viability with AC220 alone, PD173074 alone, and equimolar combination to highlight synergy. Calculation of the combination index is included in Supplementary Table S1 and synergy (CI < 0.1) indicated by an asterisk. All experiments were done in triplicate with average viability scaled to untreated condition (100%). Error bars, SD.

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FGF2-dependent resistant cultures reactivate the MAPK pathway

To explore the mechanism of resistance in FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cultures, we first evaluated the FLT3 gene for known resistance mutations in the activation loop (12). A single Y842C mutation was found at 4 months in one FGF2-supplemented culture, but the remainder of the FGF2-dependent resistant cultures did not have detectable resistance mutations. Phosphorylated FLT3 (pFLT3) and the MAPK pathway, which is downstream of both FLT3 and FGFR1, were then analyzed by Western blot. AC220 treatment of naïve MOLM14 cells effectively abrogated pFLT3 at all phosphorylation sites, pSTAT5, and pERK1/2 (lanes 1 and 2, Fig. 4A). The single FGF2-dependent resistant culture with a Y842C mutation had partial reactivation of FLT3 despite the presence of AC220 (FGF2 R-1, lane 3). FL-dependent resistant cultures also had partial restoration of pFLT3, consistent with previous reports (14; lanes 7–10). In contrast, FGF2-dependent resistant cultures R-2 to R-4 maintained phosphorylation of ERK but there was little pFLT3. To test if alternative kinase pathways might be altered in either FGF2- or FL-dependent resistant cultures, we used a phospho-kinase array to assess 46 phosphorylated proteins, but found that only the MAPK signaling pathway was consistently restored in all FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cultures (Supplementary Figs. S4 and S5).

Figure 4.

FGF2 and FL restore downstream FLT3 signaling, particularly the MAPK pathway. A, naïve MOLM14 cells were treated for 24 hours ± 10 nmol/L AC220 (first two lanes) and compared with FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cells (grown continuously in FGF2 or FL, lanes 3–10). The FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cells were harvested 24 hours after addition of fresh media, recombinant protein, and AC220. The cells were then lysed as described with Western blot analysis as per Materials and Methods. The FGF2-dependent resistant culture that developed a Y842C mutation is indicated.

Figure 4.

FGF2 and FL restore downstream FLT3 signaling, particularly the MAPK pathway. A, naïve MOLM14 cells were treated for 24 hours ± 10 nmol/L AC220 (first two lanes) and compared with FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cells (grown continuously in FGF2 or FL, lanes 3–10). The FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cells were harvested 24 hours after addition of fresh media, recombinant protein, and AC220. The cells were then lysed as described with Western blot analysis as per Materials and Methods. The FGF2-dependent resistant culture that developed a Y842C mutation is indicated.

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Removing FGF2 or FL from resistant cultures leads to ligand-independent resistance and increased frequency of FLT3 mutations

To evaluate whether FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cultures remained dependent on ligand after four months, we split the FGF2- and FL-dependent cultures and removed ligand from one subset of cultures (Fig. 5B and C). The time when cells resumed exponential growth is indicated in gray and plotted on a timeline to allow direct comparison with Fig. 1C. The single FGF2-dependent culture with the FLT3 Y842C mutation resumed exponential growth within a week after FGF2 was removed, while the remainder of FGF2- and FL-dependent cultures resumed exponential growth after about 1 month (Fig. 5B and C). Of note, resistance after removal of FGF2 or FL developed more rapidly than initial resistance (∼2 months) in the presence of FGF2 or FL. The cultures were evaluated for FLT3 activation loop mutations by Sanger sequencing at 4 and 6 months (Supplementary Fig. S6), and then again at 8 months using a next-generation sequencing panel of 42 genes frequently mutated in AML (Supplementary Table S2; ref. 24). Most of the FGF2- and FL-supplemented cultures did not have detectable resistance mutations during initial resistance, but removing FGF2 or FL greatly accelerated the acquisition of mutations. In addition, we identified frequent activating mutations of the RAS pathway, suggesting a strong selective pressure to reactivate RAS/MAPK signaling (Fig. 5). The frequency of the KRAS G13D mutation was particularly notable but we suspect this mutation is present at a low level in the naïve MOLM14 cells, because 2 of 659 reads contained this exact mutation, although this is below the sensitivity of the assay to call a true mutation.

Figure 5.

Removing ligand from FGF2- or FL-dependent resistant cultures results in ligand-independent resistance mediated by frequent mutation of FLT3 and Ras. The time to development of exponential growth (gray) was plotted over time for the extended cultures in Fig. 1C. The time points at which Sanger or next-generation sequencing (right; average read depth ∼1,500) was performed is indicated by arrows. If a mutation could not be detected, it is indicated with “–”. A, MOLM14 cells cultured in media and AC220 alone (no ligand) developed exponential growth later than FGF2- and FL-dependent cultures (B and C) and developed early resistance mutations, D839V and D835H. B and C, FGF2-dependent (B) and FL-dependent (C) resistant cultures (cultured continuously in 10 ng/mL FGF2 or FL plus 10 nmol/L AC220) were split at 4 months and 1 × 107 cells placed into fresh media without recombinant protein with continued 10 nmol/L AC220 treatment. Fresh media and 10 nmol/L AC220 were replaced every 2–3 days over the indicated time period and viable cell number was analyzed using Guava ViaCount. D, naïve MOLM14 cells and resistant MOLM14 cells with FLT3 D839V mutation (R-1), FLT3 D842C mutation (FGF2 R-1), and nonmutated resistant cells (FL R1 after FL subtraction) were exposed to a gradient of FLT3 inhibitors: AC220 (quizartinib), crenolanib, sorafenib, and ponatinib. Viability was measured after 48 hours by the MTS assay, with average viability scaled relative to untreated cells (100%). The experiment was done in triplicate. Error bars, SD.

Figure 5.

Removing ligand from FGF2- or FL-dependent resistant cultures results in ligand-independent resistance mediated by frequent mutation of FLT3 and Ras. The time to development of exponential growth (gray) was plotted over time for the extended cultures in Fig. 1C. The time points at which Sanger or next-generation sequencing (right; average read depth ∼1,500) was performed is indicated by arrows. If a mutation could not be detected, it is indicated with “–”. A, MOLM14 cells cultured in media and AC220 alone (no ligand) developed exponential growth later than FGF2- and FL-dependent cultures (B and C) and developed early resistance mutations, D839V and D835H. B and C, FGF2-dependent (B) and FL-dependent (C) resistant cultures (cultured continuously in 10 ng/mL FGF2 or FL plus 10 nmol/L AC220) were split at 4 months and 1 × 107 cells placed into fresh media without recombinant protein with continued 10 nmol/L AC220 treatment. Fresh media and 10 nmol/L AC220 were replaced every 2–3 days over the indicated time period and viable cell number was analyzed using Guava ViaCount. D, naïve MOLM14 cells and resistant MOLM14 cells with FLT3 D839V mutation (R-1), FLT3 D842C mutation (FGF2 R-1), and nonmutated resistant cells (FL R1 after FL subtraction) were exposed to a gradient of FLT3 inhibitors: AC220 (quizartinib), crenolanib, sorafenib, and ponatinib. Viability was measured after 48 hours by the MTS assay, with average viability scaled relative to untreated cells (100%). The experiment was done in triplicate. Error bars, SD.

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To confirm that the observed FLT3 mutations drive resistance, we compared the sensitivity of these cultures to multiple FLT3 inhibitors, including crenolanib, a FLT3 inhibitor that is not blocked by mutations in the activation loop (30). D839V and Y842C mutated cultures were resistant to AC220, sorafenib, and ponatinib, but remained sensitive to crenolanib (Fig. 5D). In contrast, resistant cultures without FLT3 mutation remained resistant to crenolanib (single example shown, FL R-1). All resistant cultures remained sensitive to higher doses of FLT3 inhibitors, suggesting the continued importance of partial FLT3 signaling (Figs. 3 and 5). In agreement with this result, most resistant cultures had partial restoration of FLT3 phosphorylation and reactivation of MAPK signaling by Western blot (Supplementary Fig. S7), providing further evidence that the primary routes of resistance are mediated by FLT3 and RAS/MAPK.

FGFR inhibitors overcome paracrine protection of FGF2-expressing stroma and inhibit FGF2 autocrine stromal growth

FGF2 is expressed in normal bone marrow stroma (25, 31). We evaluated if FGFR inhibitors could block the protective effects of FGF2-expressing stroma in coculture with MOLM14 to overcome FGF2-mediated resistance. We used the human bone marrow stromal cell lines HS-5 and HS-27, which are derived from the same person but have distinct functional characteristics (32). HS-5 also expresses much higher amounts of FGF2 compared with HS-27 (Fig. 6A). We cultured MOLM14 cells in media alone, with 10 ng/mL FGF2, or in Transwells above HS-5 and HS-27. The cells were then treated with 10 nmol/L AC220, 250 nmol/L PD173074, or a combination and assessed for viability after four days. PD173074 alone had no effect on MOLM14 cell viability (data not shown). MOLM14 cells cultured with recombinant FGF2 or in Transwells over HS-5 stroma were protected from effects of AC220 treatment, but protection could be overcome by concomitant PD173074 treatment. In contrast, the protective effect of HS-27 was less substantial than HS-5 and unchanged by the addition of PD173074 (Fig. 6B). Because FGF2 is also reported to be an autocrine growth factor for stromal cells (17, 18), we removed the Transwells and assessed viability of the underlying HS-5 and HS-27 cells. Only HS-5 growth was significantly attenuated by the addition of PD173074 (Fig. 6C). In summary, the addition of the FGFR inhibitor overcomes protective effects of FGF2-expressing stromal cocultures and attenuates autocrine growth of FGF2-expressing stroma (25).

Figure 6.

FGFR inhibitors overcome the protective effects of FGF2-expressing stroma (HS-5) in coculture assays. A, the human stromal cell lines HS-5 and HS-27 were analyzed for FGF2 expression by Western blot. H.M.W., high molecular weight; L.M.W., low molecular weight. B, MOLM14 cells were cultured in media alone, 10 ng/mL FGF2, or in 1-μm Transwells over HS-5 or HS-27 stromal cell lines. The cells were treated with 10 nmol/L AC220 and/or 250 nmol/L PD173074 as indicated and MOLM14 cells were analyzed for viable cell number after 4 days. Viable cells were plotted as a percentage of untreated control. NS, nonsignificant. C, the corresponding stromal cells from the Transwell coculture experiments were also evaluated by the MTS assay for viability. Results are shown relative to the untreated condition. All experiments were done in triplicate; error bars, SD; *, P < 0.05.

Figure 6.

FGFR inhibitors overcome the protective effects of FGF2-expressing stroma (HS-5) in coculture assays. A, the human stromal cell lines HS-5 and HS-27 were analyzed for FGF2 expression by Western blot. H.M.W., high molecular weight; L.M.W., low molecular weight. B, MOLM14 cells were cultured in media alone, 10 ng/mL FGF2, or in 1-μm Transwells over HS-5 or HS-27 stromal cell lines. The cells were treated with 10 nmol/L AC220 and/or 250 nmol/L PD173074 as indicated and MOLM14 cells were analyzed for viable cell number after 4 days. Viable cells were plotted as a percentage of untreated control. NS, nonsignificant. C, the corresponding stromal cells from the Transwell coculture experiments were also evaluated by the MTS assay for viability. Results are shown relative to the untreated condition. All experiments were done in triplicate; error bars, SD; *, P < 0.05.

Close modal

FGF2 increases in marrow stroma during development of resistance to AC220

To test expression of FGF2 in FLT3-ITD AML patients, bone marrow core biopsies from patients on the AC220 trial at our institution were collected prior to treatment, during response to AC220, and at development of resistance (clinical characteristics in Supplementary Table S3). The marrow biopsies were stained for FGF2 by IHC. A normal bone marrow biopsy from a surgical hip repair is shown for comparison in Fig. 7A and a representative patient series is shown in Fig. 7B, with the peripheral blood and bone marrow leukemia burden shown above the stained bone marrow biopsies. Of note, this patient acquired a FLT3 D835 mutation that was detected on day 158. FGF2 staining for all 10 patients was quantitated by Aperio ImageScope software (Fig. 7C). FGF2 increased significantly during response to AC220, peaked with early resistance, and then decreased again after overt clinical resistance. FGF2 was primarily expressed in marrow stroma and not hematopoietic cells (CD45+) by immunofluorescence (Supplementary Fig. S8). We investigated FLT3 mutations at the time of resistance: three of five patients acquired FLT3 resistance mutations during therapy; one patient had a D835 mutation prior to AC220; and three patients underwent allogeneic transplant prior to resistance (Fig. 7C). Because FL expression is reported to be increased with FLT3 inhibitor treatment (14), we also attempted FL staining by IHC with two different antibodies but were unable to obtain reliable staining.

Figure 7.

Bone marrow FGF2 increases during AC220 treatment and peaks prior to development of resistance. A, normal bone marrow biopsy (hip replacement) stained by IHC for FGF2 as described in Materials and Methods. B, graph of peripheral blood and marrow blast percentage over time of representative patient treated with AC220. Green, response to therapy; yellow/orange, early relapse in marrow; red, peripheral blood relapse. Sequential bone marrow biopsies from this patient were stained for FGF2 by IHC and are shown below. This patient developed a FLT3 mutation at D835, which was detected at day 158 as indicated. C, quantification of marrow FGF2 by IHC of all evaluable patients treated with AC220. The marrows were analyzed with Aperio ImageScope software to quantify the percentage of cells that expressed FGF2. The line indicates the median value. Statistically significant differences were evaluated using a two-tailed t test. *, P < 0.05. The number of patients and the presence or absence of FLT3 mutations are indicated. D, model of FGF2 paracrine-mediated protection of leukemia cells.

Figure 7.

Bone marrow FGF2 increases during AC220 treatment and peaks prior to development of resistance. A, normal bone marrow biopsy (hip replacement) stained by IHC for FGF2 as described in Materials and Methods. B, graph of peripheral blood and marrow blast percentage over time of representative patient treated with AC220. Green, response to therapy; yellow/orange, early relapse in marrow; red, peripheral blood relapse. Sequential bone marrow biopsies from this patient were stained for FGF2 by IHC and are shown below. This patient developed a FLT3 mutation at D835, which was detected at day 158 as indicated. C, quantification of marrow FGF2 by IHC of all evaluable patients treated with AC220. The marrows were analyzed with Aperio ImageScope software to quantify the percentage of cells that expressed FGF2. The line indicates the median value. Statistically significant differences were evaluated using a two-tailed t test. *, P < 0.05. The number of patients and the presence or absence of FLT3 mutations are indicated. D, model of FGF2 paracrine-mediated protection of leukemia cells.

Close modal

Activation of FGFRs is known to be a driver in numerous malignancies, including FGFR1, fusions in 8p myeloproliferative neoplasms (33, 34), t(4;14) translocation with FGFR3 overexpression in multiple myeloma (35, 36), FGFR3 mutations in bladder carcinoma (37), and both FGFR1 and FGFR3 fusions in glioblastoma (38), to name a few. However, it is becoming apparent that ligand activation of FGFR is also an important mechanism of resistance in cancers with primary activation of other oncogenic kinases. For example, FGF2 activation of FGFR1 or FGFR3 has been shown to promote resistance to EGFR inhibitors in lung cancer (39, 40), B-RAF inhibitors in melanoma (41), BCR-ABL inhibitors in CML (25), and KIT inhibitors in gastrointestinal stromal tumors (42, 43).

FGF2 is not uniquely capable of promoting resistance, however. A recent screen tested the ability of different ligands to promote resistance to kinase inhibitors in cancer cell lines and found that FGF2, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), and neuregulin 1 (NRG1) were the most “broadly active” ligands capable of promoting resistance to kinase inhibitors (44). HGF mediates paracrine resistance to vemurafenib in B-RAF–mutated melanoma and resistant patients were found to have increased serum HGF (44), as well as increased HGF expression in the stromal cells adjacent to the melanoma (45). Growth arrest–specific 6 (GAS6) ligand activation of the receptor AXL is another mechanism of resistance that has recently been described (46), including in FLT3-ITD AML (28, 29). Primary AML cells strongly express FGFR1 and, to a lesser extent, AXL (Supplementary Fig. S2), suggesting that different ligands may be capable of protecting receptive subsets of FLT3-ITD AML cells. We found that 6 of 23 primary FLT3-ITD AML samples were highly responsive to FGF2 ligand stimulation (Fig. 2H) and anticipate that FGF2-mediated resistance would be important in these patients. In summary, our results support the importance of ligand–RTK interaction as a general mechanism of kinase resistance and FGF2, in particular, as an important member of a class of ligands expressed in the tumor microenvironment that promote resistance.

Although potent FLT3 inhibitors, such as AC220, induce a rapid clearance of leukemia blasts from the peripheral blood, the leukemic blasts within the bone marrow respond more slowly (Fig. 7), providing strong clinical evidence that the leukemia cells in the marrow are relatively protected from AC220. This protective effect has been reproduced in vitro using either marrow stromal cells (11–13) recombinant FL (14), and now recombinant FGF2. Of note, FGF2 and FL initially promoted resistance largely in the absence of mutations, but continued culture or removal of ligand greatly accelerated development outgrowth of resistance mutations (Fig. 5). This is analogous to the residual AML blasts that persist at low levels in the marrow in vivo and over time develop additional mutational or non-mutational resistance leading to clinical relapse (Fig. 7B, marrow relapse day 133). Taken together, our data support a two-step model of resistance where ligands from the microenvironment initially blunt the effect of FLT3 inhibitors allowing leukemia cells time for survival and adaptation, which is then followed by microenvironment-independent resistance.

Although recombinant FGF2 and FL promote resistance, the mechanism of protection is distinct. FGF2 bound to FGFR1 (Fig. 2) and FGF2/FGFR1 signaling led to increased dependence upon the FGFR1/MAPK signaling pathway for cell survival, as evidenced by the strong synergy between AC220 and the FGFR inhibitor PD173074 (Fig. 3B). We investigated if there might be a direct interaction between FGFR1 and FLT3 using immunoprecipitation, but found no significant interaction (Supplementary Fig. S9). In contrast, FL-dependent resistant cultures partially restored FLT3 and downstream MAPK signaling despite AC220 (Figs. 3C and 4). Removal of FGF2 or FL from ligand-dependent cultures accelerated both mutational and non-mutational activation of FLT3 and Ras/MAPK pathway (Fig. 5 and Supplementary Fig. S7). Recently, spleen tyrosine kinase (SYK) was found to interact directly with FLT3 and modulate response to FLT3 inhibitors (47) so we also investigated the potential role of SYK in FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cultures, but found that pSYK and total SYK protein were comparable with naïve MOLM14 cells (Supplementary Figs. S5 and S10). In addition, FGF2- and FL-dependent resistant cultures were not more sensitive to the selective SYK inhibitor PRT062607 (Supplementary Table S4), suggesting that there is not an increased dependence upon SYK signaling to maintain pFLT3 in our system. Taken together, either partial restoration of FLT3 signaling or activation of the MAPK pathway through a compensatory pathway is sufficient to restore signaling homeostasis and initial cell survival (14, 48–50). Continued treatment with FLT3 inhibitors then leads to stable restoration of FLT3 and MAPK signaling through either mutational and/or non-mutational mechanisms. The variety and predominance of FLT3 and RAS mutations in our resistant cell lines was striking, indicating a strong selective pressure to restore FLT3 and MAPK signaling. That being said, the frequency of the KRAS G13D mutation was likely due to a preexisting subclone of our MOLM14 cells, because this exact mutation was also found in 2/659 sequencing reads of naïve MOLM14 (not found with other mutations). Because NRAS mutations are more common in AML overall, we suspect that NRAS mutations will be more common in resistant AML patients.

Our results also suggest that targeting early survival pathways in the microenvironment is more likely to reduce residual leukemia and thus decrease the opportunity for subsequent development of resistance, including acquisition of mutations. Early interruption of FGF2 signaling is also likely to be important because FGF2 expression in the bone marrow stroma increases with AC220 treatment (Fig. 7C), providing even more external survival cues over time. Expansion of FGF2-expressing stroma is consistent with the recent discovery that FGF2 is an autocrine growth factor for marrow stroma that is normally activated during stress hematopoiesis (17, 18). Our results suggest that this stress response is hijacked by residual AML cells for survival. Thus, FGFR inhibition can block both FGF2 paracrine survival signals to leukemia cells and FGF2 autocrine signals to stroma, making the marrow stroma itself a therapeutic target by remodeling the leukemia cell niche (see model in Fig. 7D). Optimally, clinical trials using a combination of FGFR inhibitors and novel FLT3 inhibitors that remain active against the common FLT3 activation loop mutations would (i) overcome paracrine FGF2-mediated resistance, (ii) attenuate autocrine-stimulated expansion of FGF2-expressing stroma, and (iii) circumvent development of the most common mutations that lead to resistance and relapse. This strategy has the potential to improve the durability of response to FLT3 inhibitors.

No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

Conception and design: E. Traer, A. Agarwal

Development of methodology: E. Traer

Acquisition of data (provided animals, acquired and managed patients, provided facilities, etc.): E. Traer, J. Martinez, A. Agarwal, J. Dunlap, I. English, T. Kovacsovics, J.W. Tyner

Analysis and interpretation of data (e.g., statistical analysis, biostatistics, computational analysis): E. Traer, J. Martinez, N. Javidi-Sharifi, A. Agarwal, I. English, M. Wong

Writing, review, and/or revision of the manuscript: E. Traer, J. Martinez, N. Javidi-Sharifi, A. Agarwal, J. Dunlap, I. English, T. Kovacsovics, M. Wong, B.J. Druker

Administrative, technical, or material support (i.e., reporting or organizing data, constructing databases): E. Traer, J.W. Tyner

Study supervision: E. Traer, B.J. Druker

We thank C. Tognon and members of the Druker lab for helpful discussions, and A. Agarwal for the cytokine plate. We would also like to thank David K. Edwards V for his help in identifying FLT3 mutations.

E. Traer was supported by the Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute grant number KL2TR000152from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciencesat the NIH. B.J. Druker is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The costs of publication of this article were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. This article must therefore be hereby marked advertisement in accordance with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.

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