Microtubules play an essential role in the survival of primary acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells advancing through G1 phase
We recently reported that primary acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) cells are susceptible to the microtubule depolymerizing agent vincristine (VCR) in G1 phase. This finding prompted testing another G1 phase-active compound, palbociclib (PCB), a highly selective inhibitor of cyclin-dependent kinases 4/6 (CDK4/6), alone and in combination with VCR. PCB used alone caused G1 arrest in ALL cells with no effect on cell viability, and similar results were obtained for the retinoblastoma (RB)-proficient T98G glioblastoma cell line. In contrast, HeLa cells failed to arrest in the presence of PCB, consistent with their lack of dependence on the CDK4/6-RB pathway. When ALL cells were pretreated with PCB, they became refractory to death in G1 phase induced by VCR treatment, whereas HeLa cells retained VCR sensitivity after PCB pretreatment. Immunofluorescence microscopy showed that PCB did not disrupt the microtubule network nor prevent VCR from doing so. Furthermore, ALL cells pretreated with PCB retained susceptibility to the Bcl-2/Bcl-xL inhibitor ABT-263, indicating that downstream apoptotic signaling was unaffected. When released from PCB-enforced arrest, ALL cells reinitiated cycling and regained sensitivity to VCR. ALL cells treated with cycloheximide also arrested in G1 phase and became insensitive to VCR, independently reinforcing conclusions derived from PCB-imposed arrest. Thus, primary ALL cells advancing through G1 phase are strictly dependent on functional microtubules for survival whereas microtubules are dispensable for G1-arrested cells. These findings provide novel insight into interphase microtubule function and, from a therapy standpoint, strongly caution against combining microtubule targeting agents and CDK4/6 inhibitors for ALL.