Research ArticleCancer

The caspase-8 inhibitor emricasan combines with the SMAC mimetic birinapant to induce necroptosis and treat acute myeloid leukemia

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Science Translational Medicine  18 May 2016:
Vol. 8, Issue 339, pp. 339ra69
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aad3099

Giving leukemia a SMAC

Second mitochondria-derived activator of caspases, or SMAC, is a protein involved in apoptosis, a mechanism of cell death that is commonly targeted by cancer therapies. SMAC mimetics are drugs designed to mimic the action of SMAC. Now, a pair of related articles provides insights into the effects of SMAC mimetics in leukemia. For acute lymphocytic leukemia, McComb et al. show that a SMAC mimetic called birinapant works best when it can activate two different types of cell death: apoptosis and necroptosis. For acute myelocytic leukemia, Brumatti et al. show that birinapant is particularly effective when combined with a caspase inhibitor, which shuts off the apoptotic pathway and promotes cell death by necroptosis. These findings should be helpful for identifying patients most likely to benefit from treatment with SMAC mimetics and selecting effective treatment combinations for these patients.


Resistance to chemotherapy is a major problem in cancer treatment, and it is frequently associated with failure of tumor cells to undergo apoptosis. Birinapant, a clinical SMAC mimetic, had been designed to mimic the interaction between inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAPs) and SMAC/Diablo, thereby relieving IAP-mediated caspase inhibition and promoting apoptosis of cancer cells. We show that acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells are sensitive to birinapant-induced death and that the clinical caspase inhibitor emricasan/IDN-6556 augments, rather than prevents, killing by birinapant. Deletion of caspase-8 sensitized AML to birinapant, whereas combined loss of caspase-8 and the necroptosis effector MLKL (mixed lineage kinase domain-like) prevented birinapant/IDN-6556–induced death, showing that inhibition of caspase-8 sensitizes AML cells to birinapant-induced necroptosis. However, loss of MLKL alone did not prevent a caspase-dependent birinapant/IDN-6556–induced death, implying that AML will be less likely to acquire resistance to this drug combination. A therapeutic breakthrough in AML has eluded researchers for decades. Demonstrated antileukemic efficacy and safety of the birinapant/emricasan combination in vivo suggest that induction of necroptosis warrants clinical investigation as a therapeutic opportunity in AML.


It is a hallmark of cancer cells that they become resistant to apoptosis as they acquire a malignant phenotype (1). This has led to the development of new therapies that resensitize cancers by targeting cell death inhibitor proteins. For example, BH3 mimetics such as venetoclax antagonize prosurvival BCL-2 family proteins, whereas SMAC mimetics such as birinapant antagonize inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAPs) (2, 3). Both classes of compounds specifically inhibit protein-protein interactions to activate cell death–inducing pathways.

SMAC mimetics were designed to antagonize X-linked IAP (XIAP) and relieve caspases from XIAP-dependent inhibition, thereby promoting cancer cell apoptosis (4). However, these compounds also bind to the BIR domains of cellular IAPs (cIAPs), promoting their autoubiquitylation and proteasomal degradation (57). cIAP degradation has two consequences: in a subset of cancer cells, it activates a transcriptional pathway resulting in autocrine production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) (5, 6, 8), and it sensitizes cells to the cytotoxic activity of TNF, an activity usually kept in abeyance by the cIAPs (5, 9). Several studies have shown that IAPs also play a role in the regulation of the switch between two forms of cell death, apoptosis and necroptosis (10, 11). Upon TNF and TNF receptor 1 (TNFR1) interaction, a complex (complex I) containing TNFR-associated death domain (TRADD), receptor-interacting protein kinase 1 (RIPK1), TNFR-associated factor 2 (TRAF2), and cIAP1/cIAP2 is recruited to the receptor. cIAPs promote RIPK1 ubiquitylation contributing to canonical nuclear factor κB activation. When cIAP1 and cIAP2 are depleted by SMAC mimetics, nonubiquitylated RIPK1 recruits caspase-8 to form an alternative complex, complex IIa, initiating apoptosis (12). In the presence of caspase inhibitors, a complex IIb is assembled, consisting of RIPK1, RIPK3, and MLKL (mixed lineage kinase domain-like), to induce programmed necrosis (necroptosis) (13). Thus, SMAC mimetic compounds can induce cell death via two pathways: a caspase-dependent apoptotic pathway and a caspase-independent necroptotic pathway.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an aggressive disease characterized by low survival and high relapse rate (1416), and new therapeutic strategies are urgently needed. AML is genetically heterogeneous, but certain chromosomal rearrangements occur commonly (17). For example, two subgroups of AML, infant AML and secondary AML in patients previously treated with DNA topoisomerase II inhibitors, have a high frequency of 11q23 aberration and are associated with a very poor prognosis (18, 19). Rearrangements of 11q23 fuse the lysine (K)–specific methyltransferase 2A (KMT2A) gene encoding mixed-lineage leukemia (MLL) to 1 of at least 64 different partners. The translocation partners MLLT3 (encoding AF9), MLLT1 (encoding ENL), and AFF4 (encoding AF4) are the most common translocations (20). These, and other translocation-driven leukemias, are modeled in mice using retroviral expression of the fusion protein in hematopoietic stem cells (2123).

We have developed clinically relevant models of AML to test in vitro and in vivo whether targeting IAPs with the clinical SMAC mimetic birinapant is effective in the treatment of AML and how it can be most effectively used to increase the chances of cure in AML. Using these models, we are able to show that a clinical caspase-8 inhibitor, emricasan, can sensitize AML to birinapant and even overcomes birinapant resistance.


AML cells harboring MLL translocation are sensitive to birinapant

To determine the efficiency of birinapant in inducing apoptosis in AML cells, we tested four primary mouse AML models for their sensitivity to birinapant (Fig. 1A and fig. S1). In survival assays, MLL-AF9 and MLL-ENL cells were sensitive and killed by birinapant, whereas Nup98-HoxA9 and HoxA9 + Meis1 leukemias were resistant (Fig. 1B). Cell death of MLL-ENL and MLL-AF9 was induced by 250 nM birinapant, although 50 nM was sufficient to induced cIAP1 depletion (Fig. 1C). This may indicate that antagonism of XIAP is required for birinapant to induce cell death because birinapant has a higher inhibition constant (Ki) against XIAP than cIAP1 (24). Birinapant killed MLL-ENL cells more effectively than a standard AML chemotherapeutic, cytarabine (ara-C) (Fig. 1D). Leukemic cells pretreated with a TNFR1-blocking antibody were resistant to birinapant-induced cell death (Fig. 1E), demonstrating that birinapant induced TNF/TNFR1-dependent cell death in MLL-ENL leukemias.

Fig. 1. AML driven by different oncogenes shows varying sensitivity to birinapant.

(A) Schematic of oncogenes and AML derivation protocol. Kaplan-Meier survival curve for mice transplanted with cells transduced with the different oncogenes. GFP, green fluorescent protein; LTR, long terminal repeat; IRES, internal ribosomal entry site; E14, embryonic day 14; rmIL-3, recombinant murine interleukin-3; i.v., intravenously. (B) Survival of different AML cells in response to birinapant. Primary leukemic cells from four AML models were treated with birinapant for 16 hours. Cell survival data represent means ± SEM of three to six independent tumors per model. PI, propidium iodide. (C) Protein expression profile of MLL-ENL and MLL-AF9 cells 5 hours after birinapant treatment (0, 50, 100, or 250 nM). Data are representative of two independent experiments. WB, Western blot; cFLIP, cellular FLICE-like inhibitory protein. (D) Cell viability of MLL-ENL leukemic cells 16 hours after treatment with different concentrations of birinapant or ara-C. Means ± SEM, n = 6 independent tumors. (E) TNFR1 is required for cell death mediated by birinapant in MLL-ENL leukemias. Cells were treated with 100 nM birinapant ± TNFR1 antibody (10 μg/ml) for 16 hours. Data are means ± SEM, n = 3 independent tumors.

Caspase inhibitors sensitize AML cells to birinapant

To determine the mechanism of cell death induced by birinapant, AML cells were treated with birinapant and the caspase inhibitors Z-VAD-FMK and Q-VD-OPh (Fig. 2A). Unexpectedly, rather than inhibiting birinapant-induced cell death, Z-VAD-FMK, but not Q-VD-OPh, sensitized MLL-ENL and MLL-AF9, but not HoxA9 + Meis1 cells, to birinapant killing (Fig. 2A). Caspase inhibitors might sensitize cells to SMAC mimetics by inhibiting caspase-8 and promoting necroptotic cell death (Fig. 2B) (2527). To test this hypothesis, we generated MLL-ENL AML cells deficient in genes required for necroptosis (Fig. 2C and fig. S2). Deleting Tnfr1, Ripk3, or Mlkl did not alter the onset of MLL-ENL leukemia, spleen weight, or white blood cell count on disease presentation, showing that these genes do not play a role in MLL-ENL–induced leukemogenesis (Fig. 2C and fig. S2). However, loss of Tnfr1 prevented birinapant-induced and birinapant/Z-VAD-FMK (bir/ZVAD)–induced death (Fig. 2D and fig. S2E), whereas loss of Ripk3 or Mlkl alone did not protect cells in short-term cell death assays (Fig. 2D).

Fig. 2. Caspase inhibition sensitizes leukemic cells to birinapant.

(A) Cells from primary MLL-ENL, MLL-AF9, and HoxA9 + Meis1 leukemias were pretreated for 15 to 30 min with the caspase inhibitors Z-VAD-FMK (Z-VAD) (5 μM) or Q-VD-OPh (Q-VD) (10 μM) followed by 100 nM birinapant treatment for 16 hours, after which cell viability was determined. Data are means ± SEM, n = 6. DMSO, dimethyl sulfoxide. (B) Schematic of TNF death signaling pathways associated with apoptosis and necroptosis. C8, caspase-8. (C) Kaplan-Meier survival curve of mice transplanted with MLL-ENL–transduced E14 liver cells of the indicated genotype. (D) MLL-ENL cells from wild-type (WT), Tnfr1−/−, Ripk3−/−, and Mlkl−/− mice were pretreated (15 to 30 min) with the caspase inhibitors Z-VAD-FMK (5 μM) or Q-VD-OPh (10 μM) followed by birinapant (100 nM). Cell viability was determined 16 hours after treatment. Means + SEM, n = 6. P values were obtained by comparing the survival of mice with WT and knockout leukemias treated with bir/ZVAD. (E) Birinapant-resistant MLL-ENL leukemic cells are sensitive to cell death induced by birinapant plus caspase inhibitors. Cells were pretreated (15 to 30 min) with the caspase inhibitors Z-VAD-FMK (10 μM) or Q-VD-OPh (10 μM) followed by 100 or 500 nM birinapant. Cell viability was determined 16 hours after treatment. Data are means ± SEM of two independent leukemias, each tested in two independent experiments (n = 4). (F) Human AML cell line MV4-11 was treated with birinapant ± Z-VAD-FMK (10 μM) or Q-VD-OPh (10 μM). Data are means ± SEM, n = 3. Cell survival was determined by propidium iodide uptake and flow cytometry. *P < 0.005, ***P < 0.0005, ****P ≤ 0.00005.

We then tested whether the sensitizing effect of caspase inhibition functioned in birinapant-resistant AML cells. To model clinical drug resistance, we generated MLL-ENL AML with acquired resistance to birinapant (MLL-ENLR) by culturing MLL-ENL leukemic cells in increasing doses of birinapant over 4 weeks (fig. S3A). The resultant AML was 10-fold more resistant than its founder line or a line cultured without birinapant over 4 weeks but still responded to ara-C (fig. S3B). Western blots of resistant and sensitive AML treated with birinapant showed reduced caspase activation in MLL-ENLR cells when compared to sensitive and untreated cells (fig. S3C). Nevertheless, birinapant-resistant AML cells were strongly sensitive to birinapant killing by Z-VAD-FMK or, to a lesser extent, Q-VD-OPh (Fig. 2E). The human AML cell line MV4-11 is naturally resistant to birinapant but was also sensitive to Z-VAD-FMK, but not Q-VD-OPh, to a similar degree as the primary murine AML cells (Fig. 2, E and F).

The toxicity of Z-VAD-FMK prevents its clinical use (28, 29), and Q-VD-OPh was unable to synergize with birinapant to kill AML cells. Therefore, to see whether this finding might be translatable into the clinic, we tested whether birinapant in combination with a clinical caspase inhibitor could kill AML cells. IDN-6556/emricasan is a caspase inhibitor that inhibits apoptosis in the liver and is well tolerated in humans (30). Emricasan was better at promoting birinapant-induced cell death than either Z-VAD-FMK or Q-VD-OPh (compare Fig. 2, E and F, with Fig. 3, A and B, and fig. S3, D to F), and very few AML cells from different models survived the combined birinapant/IDN-6556 (bir/IDN) treatment (Fig. 3C and figs. S3E and S4, A and B). From a clinical perspective, MLL-ENL cells, with acquired resistance to birinapant (Fig. 3B and fig. S3, D and E) or ara-C (fig. S4A) or which coexpress an activating Ras mutation (fig. S4B) and are therefore resistant to standard chemotherapy (23, 31), were all equally sensitized to birinapant killing by IDN-6556 (Fig. 3B and figs. S3, D and E, and S4, A and B). However, AML-ETO9a and CBFβ/MYH11 cells with the same active Ras mutation could not be killed even by high concentrations of bir/IDN (fig. S4, B and C). In a subset of cancers, SMAC mimetics cause cell death by simultaneously inducing TNF and sensitizing cells to TNF-induced cell death (59). If cells fail to produce TNF, they can often be sensitized to killing by exogenously adding TNF. However, CBFβ/MYH11 cells were completely resistant, and AML-ETO9a cells were relatively resistant to the birinapant/emricasan/TNF cell death stimulus (fig. S4C), suggesting that resistance to the combination occurs downstream of TNFR1. There is, however, no obvious correlation with the expression of RIPK1, RIPK3, and MLKL, which are present in sensitive and resistant cell lines alike (figs. S3F and S4D). Finally, bir/IDN was able to kill Bax−/−Bak−/− cells that are completely resistant to intrinsic cell death stimuli such as might be mediated by cytotoxic drugs like ara-C (fig. S4E).

Fig. 3. Caspase-8 inhibitors are potent inducers of TNF-RIPK1–dependent cell death in AML cells.

(A) MV4-11 cells were pretreated (15 to 30 min) or not with the caspase inhibitor IDN-6556 (5 μM) followed by birinapant at the specified doses for 48 hours. Data are mean ± SEM, n = 5. (B) MLL-ENL birinapant-sensitive (S) and MLL-ENL birinapant-resistant (R) leukemic cells were pretreated (15 to 30 min) with IDN-6556 (5 μM) or vehicle followed by birinapant (100 nM) or vehicle. Cell viability was determined after 16 hours. Means ± SEM, n = 5. (C) Survival of MLL-AF9, HoxA9 + Meis1, and Nup98-HoxA9–transformed AML cells. Cells were pretreated with the caspase inhibitors IDN-6556 (5 μM) or Q-VD-OPH (10 μM) followed by birinapant (100 nM for MLL-AF9 cells and 500 nM for HoxA9 + Meis1 and Nup98-HoxA9) ± Nec-1 (50 μM) for 16 hours. (D to F) TNF concentration in total cell lysates of MLL-ENL birinapant-sensitive and birinapant-resistant, MLL-AF9, and HoxA9 + Meis1 cells was determined after birinapant (100 nM for MLL-ENL and MLL-AF9 and 500 nM for HoxA9 + Meis1), IDN-6556 (5 μM), or bir/IDN treatments for the indicated time period. Data are means ± SEM (n = 4 to 9) of three independent experiments. (G to I) TNF concentrations in total cell lysates of MLL-ENL birinapant-sensitive (S) and birinapant-resistant (R), MLL-AF9, and HoxA9 + Meis1 cells were determined after 9 hours of treatment with bir/IDN ± Nec-1 (50 μM). Drug concentrations were the same as in (D) to (F). Data are means ± SEM, n = 3 to 4. P value was determined by comparison of bir/IDN and bir/IDN + Nec-1 for each leukemia subtype. Cell survival was determined by propidium iodide uptake and flow cytometry. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.005, ***P < 0.0005.

IDN-6556 combines with birinapant to induce TNF expression and necroptosis in AML

We next tested whether IDN-6556 sensitized leukemic cells to birinapant by increasing TNF production. When treated with the bir/IDN combination, but not with either compound alone, MLL-ENL birinapant-sensitive and birinapant-resistant leukemias, as well as MLL-AF9 and HoxA9 + Meis1 leukemias, rapidly induced detectable amounts of TNF (Fig. 3, D to F). The kinase activity of RIPK1 plays a role in SMAC mimetic–induced TNF production in some cell types (11, 32). Therefore, to determine the role of RIPK1 kinase activity in TNF production in our leukemic models, we treated MLL-ENL, MLL-AF9, and HoxA9 + Meis1 cells with bir/IDN in the presence or absence of the RIPK1 kinase inhibitor necrostatin (Nec-1). The addition of Nec-1 strongly reduced TNF production and thereby blocked cell death in both murine and human AML cells (Fig. 3, C, G, and I, and figs. S3E and S5, A and B). Genetic deletion of Tnfr1 or TNFR1 inhibition also prevented bir/IDN killing in mouse and human leukemias, thus confirming that the fundamental mechanism of killing by birinapant and bir/IDN is the same in these cells (Fig. 4A and fig. S5, C and D).

Fig. 4. IDN-6556 inhibits the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer to induce necroptosis in birinapant-treated leukemias.

(A) MLL-ENL leukemias derived from WT, Tnfr1−/−, Ripk3−/−, Mlkl−/−, Casp8−/−Ripk3−/−, and Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− progenitors were pretreated with IDN-6556 (5 μM) or vehicle followed by birinapant (50 nM) or vehicle. Graphs: Cell viability was determined 16 hours after treatment with propidium iodide staining and flow cytometry. Mean ± SEM, n = 6. Images: Clonogenic assay to determine long-term survival and proliferation of MLL-ENL leukemia cells treated with birinapant (250 nM) ± IDN-6556 (5 μM). Cells were pretreated for 30 min with IDN-6556 followed by birinapant. After the pretreatment, 500 cells were plated in 0.3% agar containing birinapant or bir/IDN. Clonogenic survival was determined 15 days after treatment. (B) TNF production in WT, Tnfr1−/−, Ripk3−/−, and Mlkl−/− MLL-ENL leukemias. Cells were treated with birinapant (100 nM) ± IDN-6556 (5 μM) for 9 hours, and TNF concentrations were determined in whole-cell lysates by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Mean ± SEM, n = 5. P values were obtained by comparison of birinapant- and bir/IDN-treated leukemic cells from each genotype. (C) Time course of killing of MLL-ENL leukemias derived from WT, Mlkl−/−, and Ripk3−/− progenitors pretreated with IDN-6556 (5 μM) followed by birinapant (100 nM). P values were calculated by comparing WT leukemic cells with the specific knockout at each time point: 8, 10, and 16 hours. (D) MLL-ENL leukemias derived from WT, Mlkl−/−, and Ripk3−/− progenitors were pretreated with IDN-6556 (5 μM) followed by birinapant (100 nM) ± Q-VD-OPH (10 μM). (E) MLL-ENL leukemias derived from WT, Mlkl−/−, and Ripk3−/− progenitors were pretreated with IDN-6556 (5 μM) followed by birinapant (100 nM). IDN-6556 was readded to cells 3 hours after birinapant treatment, and cell survival was determined 16 to 18 hours later. Data are means ± SEM, n = 4. (F) MLL-ENL Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− leukemia cells were transduced with a lentiviral construct expressing MLKL from a doxycycline (dox)–inducible promoter. Leukemic cells were treated with birinapant ± IDN-6556 in the presence or absence of doxycycline (0.5 μg/ml) to induce MLKL. Cell viability was determined 16 hours after treatment. Mean ± SEM, n = 4. (G) Comparison of the ability of Z-VAD-FMK, Q-VD-OPH, and IDN-6556 to inhibit recombinant caspase-8 homodimer and caspase-8/cFLIP heterodimer. Values are means ± SD of duplicate experiments. Cell survival was determined by propidium iodide uptake and flow cytometry. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.005, ***P < 0.0005.

Because Nec-1 prevented TNF production by bir/IDN, its use did not address whether AML cells treated with bir/IDN died by necroptosis. To determine whether bir/IDN induced necroptosis, we generated MLL-ENL leukemias lacking necroptosis effector genes. Ripk3 and Mlkl deficiency did not affect bir/IDN-induced TNF production (Fig. 4B). Tnfr1 deficiency also did not entirely prevent bir/IDN-induced TNF production, showing that it is an intrinsic property of the bir/IDN combination rather than cell death driving TNF production (Fig. 4B). Although Ripk3 and Mlkl deficiency did not affect TNF production, they did reduce bir/IDN-induced cell death in short-term cell death assays (graphs, Fig. 4A). However, in long-term clonogenic assays, neither Ripk3 nor Mlkl deficiency provided any protection (plates, Fig. 4A). On the other hand, Casp8−/−Ripk3−/− and Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− MLL-ENL leukemias were completely resistant to bir/IDN treatment (Fig. 4A and fig. S6, A to C), suggesting that residual caspase-8 activity was responsible for the cell death observed in Ripk3−/− and Mlkl−/− cells treated with bir/ZVAD or bir/IDN. On the basis of these results, we made two predictions: first, a comparison of short- and long-term death assays suggested that among necroptosis-deficient cells, bir/IDN-treated cells die more slowly than wild-type cells, and second, the genetic results indicated that the slower cell death was caspase-dependent and therefore might be blockable by an additional caspase inhibitor. Consistent with these predictions, cell death mediated by bir/IDN was delayed in Ripk3−/− or Mlkl−/− compared to wild-type cells (Fig. 4C), whereas high-dose Q-VD-OPh or readdition of IDN-6556 prevented bir/IDN-induced cell death in Ripk3−/− and Mlkl−/− but not in wild-type AML (Fig. 4, D and E). Moreover, cleaved caspase-8 and caspase-3 were present in Mlkl−/− and Ripk3−/− MLL-ENL leukemias treated with bir/IDN (fig. S6D). Together, these results suggest that IDN-6556 is effective at inducing necroptosis in birinapant-treated AML cells, by simultaneously increasing TNF production and blocking apoptosis. However, possibly because of the increased TNF production, its activity is ultimately insufficient to block all caspase-8 activity, thereby causing cells that are unable to die by necroptosis to die by apoptosis. These results also imply that loss of caspase-8 should be sufficient to sensitize AML cells to birinapant.

Caspase-8/cFLIPL is the key target of bir/IDN-mediated necroptosis

We tried several different approaches to delete Casp8 from the fetal liver progenitors or the AML cells themselves, but this always resulted in cell death. Finally, we were able to generate caspase-8–deficient cells by reexpressing inducible MLKL (MLKLi) in Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− MLL-ENL leukemias (fig. S6E). Consistent with our hypothesis that loss of caspase-8 would be sufficient to sensitize these cells, birinapant induced cell death in Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− MLKLi AML cells to a level comparable to that in wild-type AML cells treated with bir/IDN (compare Fig. 4F to Fig. 4A).

On the basis of these observations, we suspected that the differential ability of IDN-6556, Z-VAD-FMK, and Q-VD-OPh to sensitize AML to birinapant-induced cell death may correlate with their respective ability to inhibit caspase-8. The caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer is catalytically active and has been proposed to be the form of caspase-8 that inhibits necroptosis (33, 34). We therefore compared the ability of these caspase inhibitors to inhibit the caspase-8 homodimer or the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer. We generated caspase-8 homodimers or caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimers in vitro as described (33) and incubated them with a fluorogenic substrate in the presence of each inhibitor. Inhibition rate constant (kobs/I) values for both protease species show that IDN-6556 is a better caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer inhibitor than either Z-VAD-FMK or Q-VD-OPh (Fig. 4G and fig. S7). Moreover, IDN-6556 and Z-VAD-FMK inhibited the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer more efficiently than Q-VD-OPh. These results fit a model whereby inhibition of the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer efficiently activates birinapant-induced necroptosis (fig. S8, A and B). However, neither Z-VAD-FMK nor IDN-6556 can restrain homodimeric caspase-8 sufficiently to prevent birinapant-induced apoptosis in necroptosis-deficient cells (Figs. 2D and 4, C to E). IDN-6556, like Q-VD-OPh and Z-VAD-FMK, also inhibits the apoptotic caspase-3 and caspase-9 in vitro (fig. S7). However, in contrast to their potential to synergize with birinapant, Q-VD-OPh inhibited ara-C–induced apoptosis of MLL-ENL leukemic cells in a dose-dependent manner, whereas IDN-6556 at the same concentrations was completely ineffective at inhibiting the intrinsic apoptotic pathway (fig. S8C). These contrasting results in the same cells show that it is the preferred caspase-8/cFLIP target of these inhibitors rather than their drug-like properties, such as cell permeability, that determines whether or not they synergize with birinapant to kill AML cells.

Necroptosis mediated by bir/IDN eliminates AML in vivo

To determine whether the combination of bir/IDN was tolerated and effective in vivo, we transplanted mice with MLL-ENL cells bearing a luciferase transgene. Dosing commenced when the disease burden in these animals reached an emission of 107 to 108 photons/s (Fig. 5, A and B). bir/IDN treatment was well tolerated in vivo (fig. S9A), and it reduced MLL-ENL disease burden and increased long-term survival in most of the animals, with survival extending 80 to 100 days after the treatment began (Fig. 5, B and C). The combination treatment was also effective at prolonging survival in mice bearing either MLL-AF9 or MLL-ENL birinapant-resistant AML cells (fig. S9, B and C). A smaller proportion of animals responded to birinapant alone, whereas untreated mice and those receiving IDN-6556 alone rapidly succumbed to AML. Histological examination confirmed remission in combination-treated animals (Fig. 5D). IDN-6556 accumulates in the liver (28), and thus, as predicted, combination-treated mice had fewer leukemic cells in the liver than those treated with birinapant (Fig. 5D). The same thing was observed in the spleen of combined therapy mice because the bir/IDN-treated mice had an increased number of splenic follicles, indicating less infiltration of blast cells in the organ.

Fig. 5. Combination of birinapant and the clinical caspase-8 inhibitor emricasan/IDN-6556 prolongs survival in AML models.

(A) In vivo imaging of tumor progression in mice treated with vehicle (6% Captisol in phosphate-buffered saline), IDN-6556 (2.5 mg/kg), birinapant (5 mg/kg), or the combination. Mice were treated with the drugs twice a week for 4 weeks, starting treatment 10 to 11 days after retransplant of tumor cells. Images are representative of animals from each treatment group at the specified time point. i.p., intraperitoneal. (B) Graphs represent average photons per second values from mice treated with birinapant, IDN-6556, or the combination. Error bars represent SEM of n = 14 for vehicle, n = 10 for IDN-6556, n = 14 for birinapant, and n = 16 for bir/IDN. (C) Kaplan-Meier survival curve of albino C57BL/6 mice transplanted with MLL-ENL leukemia and treated with vehicle, birinapant, IDN-6556, or the combination (bir/IDN). Arrows indicate the start and end of treatment schedule. Drug concentrations used as described in (A). Statistical analysis was performed by comparison of birinapant or bir/IDN-treated mice with vehicle (blue) or IDN-6556 (orange). n.s., not significant. (D) Hematoxylin and eosin–stained sections of spleen and liver from mice with MLL-ENL AML after treatment with IDN-6556, birinapant, or the combined therapy. Arrows indicate infiltration of blast leukemic cells. Scale bars, 200 μm for the (spleen images) and 100 μm (liver images). (E) bir/IDN treatment is effective in ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) and AML PDX samples. Median inhibitory concentration (IC50) of birinapant or bir/IDN treatment was determined for these PDX samples. Cells were treated for 48 hours with birinapant (10 to 1000 nM) ± IDN-6556 (5 μM), and cell viability was determined by annexin V/7-AAD staining. Data are means of four independent experiments. N/A, not applicable. (F) Combined therapy kills patient leukemia samples. Primary leukemic cells derived from patients with the indicated treatment status were treated for 24 hours with birinapant (500 nM) ± IDN-6556 (5 μM). Cell viability was determined by flow cytometry of CD34+ propidium iodide–negative cells. Data are means of two independent experiments. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.005. hCD34, human CD34.

The tolerability and efficacy of bir/IDN therapy were evaluated in human primary cells

Finally, we tested the bir/IDN combination in primary human hematopoietic cells, patient-derived xenografts (PDXs) from MLL-harboring AML and ALL, and bone marrow and peripheral blood samples from patients with AML (Fig. 5, E and F, and fig. S10). The combined treatment was less toxic to CD34+ stem cells (fig. S10, A and B), peripheral blood mononuclear cells, T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells than standard chemotherapy (fig. S10C) and effective in three of four PDX samples tested (Fig. 5E). To extend our analysis, we determined the response of AML cells from bone marrow and peripheral blood samples to birinapant or bir/IDN treatment (Fig. 5F and table S1). Overall, four of eight samples were sensitized to birinapant killing by IDN-6556 (patients 1, 2, 3, and 6). Some chemoresistant AML cells from patients with relapsed or secondary disease were among those that were sensitive to bir/IDN (patients 1 and 2; Fig. 5F). Four other AML samples responded to birinapant alone (4, 5, 7, 8), and in three of these, birinapant-induced cell death was inhibited by the addition of IDN-6556. These results show that combined IAP/caspase-8/cFLIPL inhibition may be a potential therapeutic combination for many patients, especially ones who have failed standard chemotherapy.


Despite more than three decades of research, the survival rates in AML have only improved by 24%, with more than 40% of the patients relapsing within 12 months after intensive chemotherapy (15). In most AML cases, chemoresistance is strongly associated with increased expression of antiapoptotic proteins, such as BCL-2 and XIAP, and failure of leukemic cells to undergo apoptosis (2, 3537). Therefore, new therapies are more likely to succeed if the proposed mechanism of action is distinct from factors typically linked to chemoresistance.

SMAC mimetics such as birinapant are in clinical trials, but like other targeted anticancer drugs, they have limited effectiveness as single agents. Here, we used two clinically relevant compounds and showed that the combination of birinapant plus the clinical caspase inhibitor emricasan/IDN-6556 is well tolerated and efficiently kills AML cells in vitro and in vivo by activation of the necroptotic pathway. Together, these findings validate the potential of necroptosis targeting as a therapeutic strategy to overcome chemoresistance and treat AML.

In our in vitro assays, we showed that AML subtypes from murine models and human patient cells differ in their sensitivity to birinapant treatment. However, addition of caspase inhibitors, and particularly emricasan, strongly sensitized many AML types that we tested to birinapant-induced cell death. Even AML cells with natural or acquired resistance to birinapant, such as might occur clinically, were killed by the combination of birinapant plus caspase inhibitors. Because caspase inhibition in the presence of an IAP antagonist (birinapant) can cause necroptosis, this result implies that activation of necroptosis is a means to overcome chemoresistance.

Previous studies have shown that necroptosis induced by an experimental SMAC mimetic, BV6, and an experimental caspase inhibitor, Z-VAD-FMK, can sensitize AML cell lines to chemotherapy (36, 38, 39). Our studies extend this concept. We showed that the combination of a clinical SMAC mimetic and a clinical caspase inhibitor can induce necroptosis without the addition of chemotherapy and more effectively than the experimental compounds. Furthermore, this combination was well tolerated and effective in vivo, despite the pharmacodynamic limitations of emricasan. The inhibitory profile of emricasan strongly suggests that the reason for the much greater efficacy of this compound compared to Q-VD-OPh in cooperating with birinapant is its ability to inhibit the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer. It has been suspected that the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer is particularly important for inhibiting necroptosis, and the fact that emricasan is so effective at inducing necroptosis whereas Q-VD-OPh is not strongly supports this notion (33, 34). Our genetic experiments also revealed an unexpected twist: Casp8−/−Ripk3−/− and Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− AML cells are completely resistant to birinapant/emricasan-induced death, but Ripk3−/− and Mlkl−/− AML cells are completely sensitive in long-term survival assays. In short-term survival assays, this death occurs more slowly than in wild-type cells and can be blocked by an addition of Q-VD-OPh. These data indicate that although birinapant and emricasan are strong activators of necroptotic cell death, they can also nevertheless induce an apoptotic cell death. This unusual activity seems to be due to the ability of emricasan to increase birinapant-induced TNF production, and this is even the case when cells are selected for resistance to birinapant. The mechanism for this ability to increase TNF production requires RIPK1 kinase activity because Nec-1 prevents the bir/IDN-induced TNF increase. However, unlike birinapant-induced TNF in bone marrow–derived macrophages (11), it is unlikely that it requires RIPK3 because Ripk3−/− AML cells were still sensitive to the bir/IDN combination.

Although our results hold great promise for translation, emricasan is not a perfect drug for AML treatment because it has a half-life of only 50 min in plasma, resulting from a first-pass effect in the liver (30). The strong inhibition of AML disease in the liver that we observed with birinapant/emricasan is entirely consistent with these pharmacokinetics. It is clear, however, that for caspase inhibition to be used in the clinic together with birinapant, either emricasan will have to be used with an alternative dosing schedule or a caspase inhibitor with the same inhibitory profile as emricasan but better pharmacokinetics will need to be developed. At the very least, our work should reinvigorate interest in developing such inhibitors with a focus on developing drugs that inhibit the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer.


Study design

In our hypothesis-driven experimental design, we addressed the therapeutic potential of the clinically relevant drug combination bir/IDN in human AML cell lines, primary human AML cells, and primary murine AML cells. The effect of the combination therapy on cell death signaling (apoptosis and necroptosis) and cell growth was assessed by flow cytometry analysis of cell death markers and colony formation assays. This study was extended to a murine model of AML to analyze the effects of combination therapy in vivo. Tolerability and biosafety of the combined therapy bir/IDN were tested in vivo in healthy murine specimens and in vitro using CD34+ stem cells and blood cells from healthy patients. All in vivo experiments were performed in 8- to 10-week-old mice housed in individually ventilated cages and following the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) Animal Ethics Committee (AEC) recommendations for animal welfare and ethical approach to animals in experimental procedures. In vivo experiments were performed two to three times, and they were conducted and analyzed in a blinded manner. Details on replicates and statistical analyses of in vivo and in vitro experiments are indicated in the figure legends.


Inhibitors Z-VAD-FMK and Q-VD-OPH and fluorescent substrate Ac-IETD-afc were purchased from SM Biochemicals. Inhibitor IDN-6556 and A/C heterodimerizer used in biochemical assays were purchased from MedChem Express LLC and Clontech, respectively. Fluorescence measurements were performed in 96-well white plates using the Gemini EM fluorometer from Molecular Devices. The SMAC mimetic birinapant and the caspase-8 inhibitor IDN-6556 used for in vitro and in vivo experiments with AML cells were provided by TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals. Ara-C and daunorubicin were purchased from Selleckchem Pharma. Blocking TNF antibodies, murine anti-TNFR1, and human anti-TNFα were purchased from R&D Systems.

Generation and culture of murine AML cells

All in vivo experiments were conducted in accordance with the WEHI AEC guidelines. MLL-ENL, MLL-AF9, HoxA9 + Meis1, and Nup98-HoxA9 retroviral constructs were previously described (4043). Viral supernatants were produced in 293T cells by cotransfection of oncogene constructs and packaging plasmids. Progenitor/stem cells derived from fetal liver (E14.5) of C57BL/6 Ly5.2 wild-type, Tnfr1−/−, Ripk3−/−, Mlkl−/−, Casp8−/−Mlkl−/−, Casp8−/−Ripk3−/−, and Bax−/−Bak−/− mice (44, 45) were cultured in α–minimum essential medium (α-MEM) (Invitrogen) supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum (FCS), 2 mM l-glutamine, murine stem cell factor (SCF) (100 ng/ml) (PeproTech), IL-6 (10 ng/ml), thrombopoietin (50 ng/ml), and FMS-related tyrosine kinase 3 (FLT) (10 ng/ml) (all produced at WEHI) and transduced with viral supernatant for two consecutive days using the RetroNectin protocol. RetroNectin (30 μg/ml; WEHI)–precoated 24-well plates were spun with viral supernatant at 3000 rpm for 1 hour at 30°C and then seeded with 1 × 106 to 1.5 × 106 cells per well in supplemented α-MEM. After infection, transduced cells were injected into sublethally γ-irradiated (7.5 Gy) C57BL/6 Ly5.1 mice. Leukemia development was evidenced by weight loss, enlarged spleen, anemia, lethargy, and hunched posture. Leukemic cells were obtained from the bone marrow of sick mice and cultured at 37°C in a 10% CO2–humidified atmosphere in Iscove’s modified Dulbecco’s medium supplemented with 10% FCS and IL-3 (3 ng/ml; R&D).

Clonogenic assays

Colony formation assays for AML cells were performed as previously described (46).

Human leukemic cells

Human leukemic cell lines MV4-11 and U937 were cultured at 37°C in a 10% CO2–humidified atmosphere in RPMI medium supplemented with 10% FCS. Patient-derived leukemic cells were cultured in StemSpan serum-free expansion medium II (STEMCELL Technologies) supplemented with recombinant human cytokines rhFlt-3L (100 ng/ml), rhSCF (100 ng/ml), rhIL-3 (20 ng/ml) and rhIL-6 (20 ng/ml) (R&D), deoxyribonuclease I (100 IU/ml) (Roche), and penicillin/streptomycin (Gibco) in 10% CO2 at 37°C.

Western blots and reagents

Total cell lysates were prepared by lysing 1 × 107 cells/ml in SDS buffer [50 mM tris-HCl (pH 6.8), 2% SDS, 10% glycerol, and 2.5% β-mercaptoethanol] and boiling for 10 min. The antibodies used were anti-mouse caspase-8 polyclonal antibody (pAb), anti–cleaved caspase-8 (Asp387) pAb, and anti–cleaved caspase-3 (Asp175) pAb (Cell Signaling); anti-cFLIP (Dave-2, Adipogen) monoclonal antibody (mAb); anti-RIPK3 pAb (ProSci); anti-RIPK1 mAb (BD); anti-cIAP1 mAb (Enzo); and anti-actin mAb (Sigma).


Leukemic cells from different AML models were pretreated for 30 min with IDN-6556 followed by 100 nM birinapant. Cell lysates were prepared by lysing 1 × 106 cells in 50 μl of ice-cold protein DISC lysis buffer [150 mM sodium chloride, 2 mM EDTA, 1% Triton X-100, 10% glycerol, 20 mM tris (pH 7.5)]. TNF content in whole-cell lysates was measured by ELISA according to the manufacturer’s instructions (eBioscience).

Protein expression, purification, and nomenclature

Genes for human His-tagged caspase-8 (ΔCARD) and FLIPL (ΔDEDs) were expressed in Escherichia coli BL21 (DE3). Protein production was induced with 1 mM isopropyl-β-d-1-thiogalactopyranoside, and proteins were purified by Ni2+ affinity chromatography. For caspase-8, affinity chromatography was followed by further purification on a Mono Q anion exchange Sepharose column using the ÄKTA system. Generation of the caspase-8 homodimer (CASP8/CASP8) and the caspase-8/cFLIPL heterodimer (CASP8/FLIP) has been described elsewhere (33). Briefly, the caspase-8 monomer forming the CASP8/CASP8 dimer consists of the wild-type sequence of the large and small subunits. Two amino acids, Asp374 and Asp384, located in the linker between the large and small subunits, were mutated to Ala to prevent autocleavage in the caspase-8 that forms CASP8/FLIP. This double-mutant caspase-8 was C-terminally fused to the dimerization domain FKBP, rendering the working species FKBP-CASP8D2A.

Dimer activation and kinetic characterization

Activity of commercial inhibitor preparations was determined by back titration with caspase-3 using 200 μM Ac-IETD-afc and different dilutions of the inhibitors. Residual enzymatic activity was plotted against the concentration of inhibitor. In reactions with CASP8/CASP8 proteins, inhibitors and substrate were prepared in a kosmotropic solution [30 mM tris-HCl (pH 7.4), 1 M sodium citrate, 5 mM dithiotreitol (DTT), and 0.05% CHAPS]. Reactions with CASP8/FLIP proteins, inhibitors, and substrate were prepared in caspase buffer [20 mM Pipes (pH 7.2), 0.1 M NaCl, 1 mM EDTA, 10% sucrose, 0.1% CHAPS, and 5 mM DTT]. Activation of the CASP8/CASP8 homodimer was achieved by incubating caspase-8 at a final concentration of 10 nM in kosmotropic solution for 20 min at 37°C. Upon activation, the homodimer was reacted in 100 μl with a mixture of 200 μM Ac-IETD-afc and inhibitor at different concentrations. Reaction progress was monitored by fluorescence emission of the Ac-IETD-afc group every 2 s for 15 min at 37°C. To activate the CASP8/FLIP heterodimer FKBP-CASP8D2A at a final concentration of 50 nM, FRB-FLIP at 250 nM and A/C heterodimerizer at 250 nM were incubated in caspase buffer for 20 min at 37°C. Upon activation, the heterodimer was reacted in 100 μl with a mixture of 200 μM Ac-IETD-afc and inhibitor at different concentrations. Reaction progress was monitored by fluorescence emission of the Ac-IETD-afc group every 2 s for 15 min at 37°C. Michaelis constant (Km) of CASP8/CASP8 and CASP8/FLIP for Ac-IETD-afc was determined by activating each species with the protocol described above but with the substrate reacted in a concentration gradient from 1 to 128 nM for the homodimer and 10 to 320 nM for the heterodimer. Reaction progress was monitored by fluorescence emission of the Ac-IETD-afc group every 2 s for 15 min at 37°C.

Data analysis and statistics

Data analysis of biochemical caspase assays was performed with Prism 6.0 software. Calculations were performed with the linear segment of each progress curve (approximately the first 200 s).

kobs/I of Z-VAD-FMK, Q-VD-OPH, and IDN-6556 for CASP8/CASP8 was obtained by fitting reaction rates to the pseudo–first-order model:Embedded Imagewhere S is the substrate concentration, V0 is the initial velocity, and Vs is the steady-state rate of substrate hydrolysis in the presence of inhibitor. To obtain kobs/I of Q-VD-OPH and IDN-6556 for CASP8/FLIP, we applied the same model, but for Z-VAD-FMK, a hyperbolic inhibition curve was observed, and K2/KI was calculated instead. To derive K2/KI, rates were fitted to a hyperbola using the following model:Embedded Image

Km of CASP8/CASP8 and CASP8/FLIP for Ac-IETD-afc was calculated using the following equation:Embedded Image

Statistical analysis of leukemic cells in vitro and in vivo was performed with Prism 6.0 software. All experiments with n ≥ 3 are represented as means ± SEM. Data from in vitro assays were analyzed using Student’s t test (two-tailed), and Kaplan-Meier survival curves were analyzed using the log-rank (Mantel-Cox) test and log-rank test for trend. P values are indicated in the figure legends, considering P < 0.05 significant.


Fig. S1. Endogenous protein expression in different AML subtypes.

Fig. S2. Generation of single-gene knockout leukemias.

Fig. S3. Generation of MLL-ENL birinapant-resistant cells.

Fig. S4. IDN-6556–mediated TNF-dependent necroptosis in different AML subtypes.

Fig. S5. Prevention of IDN-6556–induced cell death in human AML cells by inhibiting TNFR1 or RIPK1 kinase activity.

Fig. S6. Generation of MLL-ENL double-gene knockout leukemias.

Fig. S7. Biochemical comparison of caspase inhibitors IDN-6556, Z-VAD-FMK, and Q-VD-OPh.

Fig. S8. Comparison of the ability of caspase inhibitors to induce or block cell death in leukemic cells.

Fig. S9. Combined treatment with bir/IDN in vivo.

Fig. S10. Safety of combined bir/IDN treatment in healthy human cells.

Table S1. Deidentified patient data.


  1. Acknowledgments: We thank the staff of the WEHI Bioservices facilities and the Burnet Institute ImmunoMonitoring Facility for technical assistance. We also thank W. Alexander for providing the Mlkl−/− and Casp8−/−Mlkl−/− mice and G. Begley and K. Manson for discussions and intellectual input. Funding: This work was supported by a grant from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society [SCOR (Specialized Center of Research) grant 7001-06 to D.L.V.], the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC; grants 461221, 1025594, 1046010, and 1081376), NHMRC fellowships (grants 541901 and 1058190 to J.S.), and an Association pour le Recherche contre le Cancer (ARC) fellowship to N.L. with additional support from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, the Victorian State Government Operational Infrastructure Support, and the NHMRC Independent Research Institutes Infrastructure Support Scheme (grant 361646). G.S. and M.N. are supported by NIH (grants RO1GM099040 and 5 R01CA163743). R.L. is supported by an NHMRC fellowship (1059804). Author contributions: G.B., C.M., N.L., N.-Y.N., M.N., M.C.T., J.R., M.G., J.M.S., N.S., G.P., E.d.V., and R.G. designed and performed the experiments and analyzed the data; G.B., J.S., P.G.E., D.L.V., A.W., and G.S. planned the project, designed the experiments, and analyzed the data; S.P.G., S.M.C., R.W.J., R.L., and M.A.G. contributed expertise and experimental reagents; and G.B., J.S., and P.G.E. wrote the paper. Competing interests: J.S. and D.V. are on the scientific advisory board of TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals Corporation and hold options on a small number of shares in the company. G.S. serves as a consultant for Genentech. G.B. and J.S. have a provisional patent application related to the subject matter of the paper.

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