Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a hematopoietic stem/progenitor cell disorder in which Bcr-Abl oncoprotein inhibits cell differentiation. Differentiation induction is considered an alternative strategy for treating CML. Activin A, a member of the transforming growth factor-β superfamily, induces erythroid differentiation of CML cells through the p38 MAPK pathway. In this study, treatment of the K562 CML stem/progenitor cell line with activin A followed by a subtoxic concentration of the Bcr-Abl inhibitor imatinib strongly induced growth inhibition and apoptosis compared with simultaneous treatment with activin A and imatinib. Imatinib-induced growth inhibition and apoptosis following activin A pretreatment were dose- and time-dependent. Imatinibinduced growth inhibition and apoptosis were also dependent on the pretreatment dose of activin A. More than 90% of the activin A-induced increases in glycophorin A-positive cells were sensitive to imatinib. However, only some of original glycophorin A-positive cells in the activin A treatment group were sensitive to imatinib. Sequential treatment with activin A and imatinib decreased Bcr-Abl, procaspase- 3, Mcl-1, and Bcl-xL and also induced cleavage of procaspase- 3/poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase. The reduction of erythroid differentiation in p38 MAPK dominant-negative mutants or by short hairpin RNA knockdown of p38 MAPK decreased the growth inhibition and apoptosis mediated by sequential treatment with activin A and imatinib. Furthermore, the same inhibition level of multidrug resistance 1 expression was observed in cells treated with activin A alone, treated sequentially with activin A and imatinib, or treated simultaneously with activin A and imatinib. The p38 MAPK inhibitor SB-203580 can restore activin A-inhibited multidrug resistance 1 expression. Taken together, our results suggest that a subtoxic concentration of imatinib could exhibit strong cytotoxicity against erythroid- differentiated K562 CML cells.
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