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Gene expression profiling of leukemic cells and primary thymocytes predicts a signature for apoptotic sensitivity to glucocorticoids

Aaron L Miller1, Spogmai Komak2, M Scott Webb1, Edward H Leiter3 and E Brad Thompson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA

2 Department of Surgery, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA

3 Diabetes and Obesity, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, The Jackson, Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME, USA

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Cancer Cell International 2007, 7:18  doi:10.1186/1475-2867-7-18

Published: 28 November 2007



Glucocorticoids (GC's) play an integral role in treatment strategies designed to combat various forms of hematological malignancies. GCs also are powerful inhibitors of the immune system, through regulation of appropriate cytokines and by causing apoptosis of immature thymocytes. By activating the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), GCs evoke apoptosis through transcriptional regulation of a complex, interactive gene network over a period of time preceding activation of the apoptotic enzymes. In this study we used microarray technology to determine whether several disparate types of hematologic cells, all sensitive to GC-evoked apoptosis, would identify a common set of regulated genes. We compared gene expression signatures after treatment with two potent synthetic GCs, dexamethasone (Dex) and cortivazol (CVZ) using a panel of hematologic cells. Pediatric CD4+/CD8+ T-cell leukemia was represented by 3 CEM clones: two sensitive, CEM-C7–14 and CEM-C1–6, and one resistant, CEM-C1–15, to Dex. CEM-C1–15 was also tested when rendered GC-sensitive by several treatments. GC-sensitive pediatric B-cell leukemia was represented by the SUP-B15 line and adult B-cell leukemia by RS4;11 cells. Kasumi-1 cells gave an example of the rare Dex-sensitive acute myeloblastic leukemia (AML). To test the generality of the correlations in malignant cell gene sets, we compared with GC effects on mouse non-transformed thymocytes.


We identified a set of genes regulated by GCs in all GC-sensitive malignant cells. A portion of these were also regulated in the thymocytes. Because we knew that the highly Dex-resistant CEM-C1–15 cells could be killed by CVZ, we tested these cells with the latter steroid and again found that many of the same genes were now regulated as in the inherently GC-sensitive cells. The same result was obtained when we converted the Dex-resistant clone to Dex-sensitive by treatment with forskolin (FSK), to activate the adenyl cyclase/protein kinase A pathway (PKA).


Our results have identified small sets of genes that correlate with GC-sensitivity in cells from several hematologic malignancies. Some of these are also regulated in normal mouse thymocytes.