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Brüning, Ansgar; Rahmeh, Martina; Gingelmaier, Andrea und Friese, Klaus: The mitochondria-independent cytotoxic effect of nelfinavir on leukemia cells can be enhanced by sorafenib-mediated mcl-1 downregulation and mitochondrial membrane destabilization. In: Molecular Cancer 2010, 9:19


Background: Nelfinavir is an HIV protease inhibitor that has been used for a long period of time to treat HIVinfected individuals. It has recently emerged that nelfinavir could represent a prospective new anti-cancer drug, prompting us to test the effect of nelfinavir on leukemia cells. Methods: By combining in vitro and ex vivo studies, the effect of nelfinavir on leukemia cells and non-malignant, bone marrow-derived tissue cells was analyzed. Results: At a concentration of 9 mu g/ml, nelfinavir induced death of 90% of HL60, IM9, and Jurkat cells. At the same concentration and treatment conditions, less than 10% of aspirated human bone marrow cells showed nelfinavir-induced cell damage. Nelfinavir-induced death of leukemia cells was accompanied by activation of caspases 3, 7, and 8. Despite caspase activation, the upregulation of the anti-apoptotic bcl-2 family member protein mcl-1 that resulted from nelfinavir treatment stabilized the mitochondrial membrane potential, resulting in primarily mitochondria-independent cell death. Pharmacological downregulation of mcl-1 expression by treatment with sorafenib (2 mu g/ml) significantly enhanced nelfinavir-induced apoptosis even at lower nelfinavir concentrations (5 mu g/ml), but did not have additional detrimental effects on non-malignant bone marrow cells. Conclusions: The ability of nelfinavir to induce apoptosis in leukemia cells as a single agent in a mitochondria-independent manner might suggest it could be used as a second or third line of treatment for leukemia patients for whom standard mitochondria-directed treatment strategies have failed. Combination treatment with nelfinavir and sorafenib might further enhance the efficacy of nelfinavir even on chemo-resistant leukemia cells.