The proteasome inhibitor bortezomib is widely used in the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma (MM). The expression levels of many proteins increase as a result of bortezomib treatment, including the pro-apoptotic protein NOXA. NOXA functions to sequester the anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family member, MCL-1. High levels of MCL-1 and/or low levels of NOXA have been implicated in bortezomib resistance and negative patient outcomes, including short duration of treatment response. The BCL-2-specific BH3 mimetic venetoclax (ABT-199) has also been explored in multiple hematological malignancies, including the treatment of MM. Venetoclax induces apoptosis in a BCL-2 specific manner by directly inhibiting BCL-2 function. However, intrinsic resistance to venetoclax treatment observed in MM patient samples has been attributed to a low BCL-2-to-MCL-1 gene expression ratio, suggesting a central role for MCL-1 in cell survival in this context as well. Increased MCL-1 expression is a known resistance mechanism to venetoclax treatment in a variety of cell types including chronic lymphocytic leukemia and lymphomas. Considering the central role of MCL-1 to treatment efficacy in MM, we investigated the ability of an MCL-1-lowering agent, namely the CDK9 inhibitor alvocidib, to potentiate the activity of venetoclax in MM. Alvocidib suppresses MCL-1 expression via CDK9-mediated regulation of RNA polymerase II. Alvocidib has achieved robust improvements in the clinical response rates of high-risk, newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients as part of the time-sequential ACM regimen (alvocidib + cytarabine + mitoxantrone). We therefore hypothesized that alvocidib would potentiate the activity of venetoclax in MM through an MCL-1-dependent mechanism. In this report, we demonstrate that alvocidib inhibits the protein expression of MCL-1 in MM cells in a time-dependent fashion, up to 96 hours. In cell viability assays, the addition of up to 100 nM venetoclax resulted in a 2.8-fold reduction in the IC50 of alvocidib in the cultured OPM-2 cell line. Conversely, the potentiation of venetoclax activity with the addition of alvocidib resulted in a more than 500-fold decrease in IC50 in the relatively venetoclax-resistant OPM-2 cells. Additional studies are currently underway to investigate the efficacy of alvocidib and venetoclax in the context of bortezomib resistance where low NOXA may contribute to enhanced cell survival via MCL-1. Taken together, our data suggest that the combination of alvocidib with venetoclax may constitute a novel therapeutic regimen in the treatment of MM. Further, it suggests that CDK9-mediated targeting of MCL-1 may offer a clinical route to addressing intrinsic resistance in MM patients.

Citation Format: Mark Livingston, Wontak Kim, Hillary Haws, Peter Peterson, Clifford J. Whatcott, Adam Siddiqui-Jain, Steven Weitman, David J. Bearss, Steven L. Warner. Alvocidib potentiates the activity of venetoclax in preclinical models of multiple myeloma [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 1106. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-1106