Targeting the differential addiction to anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family for cancer therapy.
BCL-2 family proteins are central regulators of mitochondrial apoptosis and validated anti-cancer targets. Using small cell lung cancer (SCLC) as a model, we demonstrated the presence of differential addiction of cancer cells to anti-apoptotic BCL-2, BCL-XL or MCL-1, which correlated with the respective protein expression ratio. ABT-263 (navitoclax), a BCL-2/BCL-XL inhibitor, prevented BCL-XL from sequestering activator BH3-only molecules (BH3s) and BAX but not BAK. Consequently, ABT-263 failed to kill BCL-XL-addicted cells with low activator BH3s and BCL-XL overabundance conferred resistance to ABT-263. High-throughput screening identified anthracyclines including doxorubicin and CDK9 inhibitors including dinaciclib that synergized with ABT-263 through downregulation of MCL-1. As doxorubicin and dinaciclib also reduced BCL-XL, the combinations of BCL-2 inhibitor ABT-199 (venetoclax) with doxorubicin or dinaciclib provided effective therapeutic strategies for SCLC. Altogether, our study highlights the need for mechanism-guided targeting of anti-apoptotic BCL-2 proteins to effectively activate the mitochondrial cell death programme to kill cancer cells.