MCL-1 and BCL-2 are both frequently overexpressed in acute myeloid leukemia and critical for the survival of acute myeloid leukemia cells and acute myeloid leukemia stem cells. MCL-1 is a key factor in venetoclax resistance. Using genetic and pharmacological approaches, we discovered that MCL-1 regulates leukemia cell bioenergetics and carbohydrate metabolisms, including the TCA cycle, glycolysis and pentose phosphate pathway and modulates cell adhesion proteins and leukemia-stromal interactions. Inhibition of MCL-1 sensitizes to BCL-2 inhibition in acute myeloid leukemia cells and acute myeloid leukemia stem/progenitor cells, including those with intrinsic and acquired resistance to venetoclax through cooperative release of pro-apoptotic BIM, BAX, and BAK from binding to anti-apoptotic BCL-2 proteins and inhibition of cell metabolism and key stromal microenvironmental mechanisms. The combined inhibition of MCL-1 by MCL-1 inhibitor AZD5991 or CDK9 inhibitor AZD4573 and BCL-2 by venetoclax greatly extended survival of mice bearing patient-derived xenografts established from an acute myeloid leukemia patient who acquired resistance to venetoclax/decitabine. These results demonstrate that co-targeting MCL-1 and BCL-2 improves the efficacy of and overcomes preexisting and acquired resistance to BCL-2 inhibition. Activation of metabolomic pathways and leukemia-stroma interactions are newly discovered functions of MCL-1 in acute myeloid leukemia, which are independent from canonical regulation of apoptosis by MCL-1. Our data provide new mechanisms of synergy and rationale for co-targeting MCL-1 and BCL-2 clinically in patients with acute myeloid leukemia and potentially other cancers.
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