DT388-GM-CSF, a targeted fusion toxin constructed by conjugation of human granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) with the catalytic and translocation domains of diphtheria toxin, is presently in phase I trials for patients with resistant acute myeloid leukemia. HL-60/VCR, a multidrug-resistant human myeloid leukemia cell line, and wild-type HL-60 cells were used to study the impact of DT388-GM-CSF on metabolism of ceramide, a modulator of apoptosis. After 48 hours with DT388-GM-CSF (10 nM), ceramide levels in HL-60/VCR cells rose 6-fold and viability fell to 10%, whereas GM-CSF alone was without influence. Similar results were obtained in HL-60 cells. Examination of the time course revealed that protein synthesis decreased by about 50% and cellular ceramide levels increased by about 80% between 4 and 6 hours after addition of DT388-GM-CSF. By 6 hours this was accompanied by activation of caspase-9, followed by activation of caspase-3, cleavage of caspase substrates, and chromatin fragmentation. Hygromycin B and emetine failed to elevate ceramide levels or induce apoptosis at concentrations that inhibited protein synthesis by 50%. Exposure to C6-ceramide inhibited protein synthesis (EC50 ∼5 μM) and decreased viability (EC50 -6 μM). Sphingomyelinase treatment depleted sphingomyelin by about 10%, while increasing ceramide levels and inhibiting protein synthesis. Diphtheria toxin increased ceramide and decreased sphingomyelin in U-937 cells, a cell line extremely sensitive to diphtheria toxin; exposure to DT388-GM-CSF showed sensitivity at less than 1.0 pM. Diphtheria toxin and conjugate trigger ceramide formation that contributes to apoptosis in human leukemia cells through caspase activation and inhibition of protein synthesis.
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