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Loss of glucocorticoid receptor expression mediates in vivo dexamethasone resistance in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia

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Despite decades of clinical use, mechanisms of glucocorticoid resistance are poorly understood. We treated primary murine T lineage acute lymphoblastic leukemias (T-ALLs) with the glucocorticoid dexamethasone (DEX) alone and in combination with the pan-PI3 kinase inhibitor GDC-0941 and observed a robust response to DEX that was modestly enhanced by GDC-0941. Continuous in vivo treatment invariably resulted in outgrowth of drug-resistant clones, ~30% of which showed markedly reduced glucocorticoid receptor (GR) protein expression. A similar proportion of relapsed human T-ALLs also exhibited low GR protein levels. De novo or preexisting mutations in the gene encoding GR (Nr3c1) occurred in relapsed clones derived from multiple independent parental leukemias. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing confirmed that loss of GR expression confers DEX resistance. Exposing drug-sensitive T-ALLs to DEX in vivo altered transcript levels of multiple genes, and this response was attenuated in relapsed T-ALLs. These data implicate reduced GR protein expression as a frequent cause of glucocorticoid resistance in T-ALL.

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