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1451 Cerebral Spinal Fluid Attenuates the Efficacy of Methotrexate Against Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Cells

Program: Oral and Poster Abstracts
Session: 605. Molecular Pharmacology and Drug Resistance: Lymphoid Neoplasms: Poster I
Hematology Disease Topics & Pathways:
Fundamental Science, Research, Non-Biological therapies, Chemotherapy, Therapies, Biological Processes, molecular biology
Saturday, December 9, 2023, 5:30 PM-7:30 PM

Jay Kang, MS1*, Jason Ostergaard, BS1* and Peter Gordon, MD/PhD2

1Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
2Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

The anti-folate methotrexate is a critical component of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) therapy. In addition to systemic administration, methotrexate is given intrathecally, or directly into the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) via lumbar puncture, for central nervous system (CNS) leukemia treatment and prophylaxis. While IT methotrexate played a critical role in improving outcomes for ALL, CNS ALL relapse remains a major cause of treatment failure and therapy related morbidity. However, attempts to develop more efficacious and less toxic CNS ALL therapies have been largely unsuccessful and IT methotrexate has remained the standard of care for 60+ years.

Based on our prior work showing that ALL cells are more poised to undergo apoptosis in nutrient poor CSF, we initially hypothesized that ALL chemosensitivity will be increased in CSF (Basile et al., 2020). While this was confirmed for several ALL drugs including cytarabine and anthracyclines, we strikingly found that methotrexate was significantly less efficacious and potent against ALL cells in CSF relative to standard tissue culture media or the more physiologically relevant human plasma-like media (HPLM). CSF also attenuated the sensitivity of ALL cells to other anti-folates including raltitrexed, trimetrexate, and pralatrexate. To define the mechanism(s) underlying this methotrexate resistance induced by CSF, we explored previously well-described mechanisms of methotrexate resistance in leukemia and other cancers. However, to date this work suggests that the molecular etiology of this CSF-induced relative methotrexate resistance is not entirely explained by diminished leukemia proliferation in CSF, altered methotrexate cellular influx/efflux, methotrexate metabolism, folate analog rescue, dysregulated expression of methotrexate target proteins, or compensation by nucleotide salvage pathways.

To complement our work examining known mechanisms of methotrexate resistance, we also used a more discovery-based approach and compared the gene expression patterns of leukemia cells in CSF versus tissue culture media. Preliminary bioinformatic analyses identified dysregulation of multiple genes involved in the integrated stress response (ISR) and unfolded protein response (UPR) pathways in leukemia cells in CSF. The ISR/UPR are mechanisms by which cells adapt to diverse stress stimuli in the microenvironment, including potentially nutrient poor CSF which is low in glucose, proteins, and lipids relative to plasma. The hallmark event in this pathway is the phosphorylation of the translation initiation factor eIF2α, which inhibits global protein synthesis and enables the translation of selected genes that together enable cell survival. Supporting our gene expression data, ALL cells in CSF showed increased phosphorylation of eIF2α and a decrease in global protein synthesis. Intriguingly, it has been shown that activation of the UPR can divert metabolites from glycolysis to mitochondrial one-carbon metabolism with resulting resistance to anti-folates such as methotrexate (Reich et al., 2020). Accordingly, we next tested the effect of UPR/ISR activation on leukemia cell sensitivity to methotrexate in tissue culture media. Activation of the UPR with thapsigargin, a sarco/endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase (SERCA) inhibitor that triggers ER stress, increased methotrexate resistance in leukemia cells. Similarly, BtdCPU, a small-molecule activator of heme regulated inhibitor (HRI) kinase that phosphorylates eIF2α and activates the ISR, also enhanced leukemia resistance to methotrexate. Building upon these results, current investigations are focused on testing the role of UPR/IST activation in methotrexate resistance in leukemia cells in CSF and modulating this pathway to overcome resistance.

While methotrexate is clearly an efficacious and critical component of CNS leukemia treatment and prophylaxis, we have shown that CSF attenuates the overall efficacy of methotrexate in targeting leukemia cells. Moreover, we anticipate that our current work defining the mechanisms driving this resistance may identify novel approaches for maximizing methotrexate efficacy and more completely eradicating leukemia cells in CSF and the CNS. Finally, this work highlights the importance of critically evaluating even long-established standards of care.

Disclosures: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

*signifies non-member of ASH