Cancers overcome replicative immortality by activating either telomerase or an alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) mechanism. ALT occurs in ∼25% of high-risk neuroblastomas, and progression in patients with ALT neuroblastoma during or after front-line therapy is frequent and often fatal. Temozolomide + irinotecan is commonly used as salvage therapy for neuroblastoma. Patient-derived cell lines and xenografts established from patients with relapsed ALT neuroblastoma demonstrated de novo resistance to temozolomide + irinotecan [SN-38 in vitro, P < 0.05; in vivo mouse event-free survival (EFS), P < 0.0001] vs. telomerase-positive neuroblastomas. We observed that ALT neuroblastoma cells manifested constitutive ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM) activation due to spontaneous telomere dysfunction which was not observed in telomerase-positive neuroblastoma cells. We demonstrated that induction of telomere dysfunction resulted in ATM activation that, in turn, conferred resistance to temozolomide + SN-38 (4.2-fold change in IC50, P < 0.001). ATM knockdown (shRNA) or inhibition using a clinical-stage small-molecule inhibitor (AZD0156) reversed resistance to temozolomide + irinotecan in ALT neuroblastoma cell lines in vitro (P < 0.001) and in four ALT xenografts in vivo (EFS, P < 0.0001). AZD0156 showed modest to no enhancement of temozolomide + irinotecan activity in telomerase-positive neuroblastoma cell lines and xenografts. Ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3 related (ATR) inhibition using AZD6738 did not enhance temozolomide + SN-38 activity in ALT neuroblastoma cells. Thus, ALT neuroblastoma chemotherapy resistance occurs via ATM activation and is reversible with ATM inhibitor AZD0156. Combining AZD0156 with temozolomide + irinotecan warrants clinical testing for neuroblastoma.
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