Activating mutations of the FMS-like tyrosine kinase 3 gene (FLT3) occur in approximately one-third of patients with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and predict for a poor outcome. Heat shock protein 90 (Hsp90) is a molecular chaperone that is frequently used by cancer cells to stabilise mutant oncoproteins. Mutant FLT3 is chaperoned by Hsp90 in primary AML blasts whereas unmutated FLT3 is not, making Hsp90 inhibitors potentially useful therapeutically. The present study showed that inhibition of Hsp90 by 17-allylamino-17-demethoxygeldanamycin (17-AAG) was cytotoxic to primary AML cells expressing mutant FLT3. Inhibition of Hsp90 results in altered downstream signalling effects in primary AML cells with disruption of Janus kinase-signal transducer and activator of transcription (JAK-STAT), mitogen-activated protein kinase and phosphatidylinositol 3/AKT signalling pathways. Co-treatment of blasts with 17-AAG and cytarabine resulted in a synergistic or additive effect in approximately 50% of AML cases tested. Our results confirm that Hsp90 is a valid molecular target in the therapy of AML. Inhibition of Hsp90 in parallel with conventional AML therapies may have particular benefit in those patients with the poor prognostic FLT3 mutant disease.
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