Imatinib is a targeted selective inhibitor of chimaeric Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase developed for effective therapy of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) patients. Unfortunately, evidence now exists to indicate that a portion of such patients treated with imatinib acquire resistance and subsequently relapse. To understand the heterogeneous basis of imatinib resistance, we have investigated the possible mechanism(s) via which hemin, a key regulator of hematopoiesis that is converted to heme intracellularly, renders CML cells less susceptible to imatinib. Hemin at 30‐90 M protected a substantial proportion (>40%) of human Bcr-Abl(+) CML cells (K-562 and KU-812) from imatinib-induced cell killing by increasing the imatinib IC50 value, reducing DNA damage, and promoting erythroid differentiation. RT-PCR assessment of RNA transcripts encoded by human GAPDH, G-globin, Bcr-Abl, HO-2, Hpr-6, CEBPa, Bcl-2a, Bcl-2b, and Nrf2 genes revealed that hemin selectively counteracted the repression of antiapoptotic Bcl-2a, Bcl-2b, and Nrf2 genes in imatinib-treated cells. These genes are markedly repressed by imatinib alone in human K-562 CML cells. Hemin, however, had no detectable effect on the expression of the Bcr-Abl gene. Moreover, inhibition of de novo heme biosynthesis by succinyl-acetone enhanced the killing effect of imatinib. These data clearly indicate that: (a) cellular heme resulted from de novo biosynthesis and hemin uptake alters the developmental stage of human Bcr-Abl(+) CML cells and their susceptibility to imatinib; (b) cellular heme counteracts the ability of imatinib to repress Bcl-2 and Nrf2 gene expression; and (c) inhibitors of de novo biosynthesis can be developed and combined with imatinib to enhance its antileukemic activity.
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