Targeting anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 by AT-101 to increase radiation efficacy: data from in vitro and clinical pharmacokinetic studies in head and neck cancer

Shuraila F. Zerp, Rianne Stoter, Frank J. P. Hoebers, Michiel W. M. van den Brekel, Ria Dubbelman, Gitta K. Kuipers, M. Vincent M. Lafleur, Ben J. Slotman, Marcel Verheij*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Pro-survival Bcl-2 family members can promote cancer development and contribute to treatment resistance. Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is frequently characterized by overexpression of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members. Increased levels of these anti-apoptotic proteins have been associated with radio-and chemoresistance and poor clinical outcome. Inhibition of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members therefore represents an appealing strategy to overcome resistance to anti-cancer therapies. The aim of this study was to evaluate combined effects of radiation and the pan-Bcl-2 inhibitor AT-101 in HNSCC in vitro. In addition, we determined human plasma levels of AT-101 obtained from a phase I/II trial, and compared these with the effective in vitro concentrations to substantiate therapeutic opportunities. Methods: We examined the effect of AT-101, radiation and the combination on apoptosis induction and clonogenic survival in two HNSCC cell lines that express the target proteins. Apoptosis was assessed by bis-benzimide staining to detect morphological nuclear changes and/or by propidium iodide staining and flow-cytometry analysis to quantify sub-diploid apoptotic nuclei. The type of interaction between AT-101 and radiation was evaluated by calculating the Combination Index (CI) and by performing isobolographic analysis. For the pharmacokinetic analysis, plasma AT-101 levels were measured by HPLC in blood samples collected from patients enrolled in our clinical phase I/II study. These patients with locally advanced HNSCC were treated with standard cisplatin-based chemoradiotherapy and received dose-escalating oral AT-101 in a 2-weeks daily schedule every 3 weeks. Results: In vitro results showed that AT-101 enhances radiation-induced apoptosis with CI's below 1.0, indicating synergy. This effect was sequence-dependent. Clonogenic survival assays demonstrated a radiosensitizing effect with a DEF37 of 1.3 at sub-apoptotic concentrations of AT-101. Pharmacokinetic analysis of patient blood samples taken between 30 min and 24 h after intake of AT-101 showed a dose-dependent increase in plasma concentration with peak levels up to 300-700 ng/ml between 1.5 and 2.5 h after intake. Conclusion: AT-101 is a competent enhancer of radiation-induced apoptosis in HNSCC in vitro. In addition, in vitro radiosensitization was observed at clinically attainable plasma levels. These finding support further evaluation of the combination of AT-101 with radiation in Bcl-2-overexpressing tumors.
Original languageEnglish
Article number158
JournalRadiation Oncology
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2015


  • Radiation
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Apoptosis
  • Bcl-2

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