BCR-ABL tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are effective against chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), but they rarely eliminate CML stem cells. Disease relapse is common upon therapy cessation, even in patients with complete molecular responses. Furthermore, once CML progresses to blast crisis (BC), treatment outcomes are dismal. We hypothesized that concomitant targeting of BCL-2 and BCR-ABL tyrosine kinase could overcome these limitations. We demonstrate increased BCL-2 expression at the protein level in bone marrow cells, particularly in Lin-Sca-1+cKit+ cells of inducible CML in mice, as determined by CyTOF mass cytometry. Further, selective inhibition of BCL-2, aided by TKI-mediated MCL-1 and BCL-XL inhibition, markedly decreased leukemic Lin-Sca-1+cKit+ cell numbers and long-term stem cell frequency and prolonged survival in a murine CML model. Additionally, this combination effectively eradicated CD34+CD38-, CD34+CD38+, and quiescent stem/progenitor CD34+ cells from BC CML patient samples. Our results suggest that BCL-2 is a key survival factor for CML stem/progenitor cells and that combined inhibition of BCL-2 and BCR-ABL tyrosine kinase has the potential to significantly improve depth of response and cure rates of chronic-phase and BC CML.
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