Using ex vivo drug screening of primary patient specimens, we identified the combination of the p38 MAPK inhibitor doramapimod (DORA) with the BCL2 inhibitor venetoclax (VEN) as demonstrating broad, enhanced efficacy compared with each single agent across 335 acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patient samples while sparing primary stromal cells. Single-agent DORA and VEN sensitivity was associated with distinct, nonoverlapping tumor cell differentiation states. In particular, increased monocytes, M4/M5 French-American-British classification, and CD141 immunophenotype tracked with sensitivity to DORA and resistance to VEN but were mitigated with the combination. Increased expression of MAPK14 and BCL2, the respective primary targets of DORA and VEN, were observed in monocytic and undifferentiated leukemias, respectively. Enrichment for DORA and VEN sensitivities was observed in AML with monocyte-like and progenitor-like transcriptomic signatures, respectively, and these associations diminished with the combination. The mechanism underlying the combination’s enhanced efficacy may result from inhibition of p38 MAPK-mediated phosphorylation of BCL2, which in turn enhances sensitivity to VEN. These findings suggest exploiting complementary drug sensitivity profiles with respect to leukemic differentiation state, such as dual targeting of p38 MAPK and BCL2, offers opportunity for broad, enhanced efficacy across the clinically challenging heterogeneous landscape of AML.
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