DRP-1 is required for BH3 mimetic-mediated mitochondrial fragmentation and apoptosis

The concept of using BH3 mimetics as anticancer agents has been substantiated by the efficacy of selective drugs, such as Navitoclax and Venetoclax, in treating BCL-2-dependent haematological malignancies. However, most solid tumours depend on MCL-1 for survival, which is highly amplified in multiple cancers and a major factor determining chemoresistance. Most MCL-1 inhibitors that have been generated so far, while demonstrating early promise in vitro, fail to exhibit specificity and potency in a cellular context. To address the lack of standardised assays for benchmarking the in vitro binding of putative inhibitors before analysis of their cellular effects, we developed a rapid differential scanning fluorimetry (DSF)-based assay, and used it to screen a panel of BH3 mimetics. We next contrasted their binding signatures with their ability to induce apoptosis in a MCL-1 dependent cell line. Of all the MCL-1 inhibitors tested, only A-1210477 induced rapid, concentration-dependent apoptosis, which strongly correlated with a thermal protective effect on MCL-1 in the DSF assay. In cells that depend on both MCL-1 and BCL-XL, A-1210477 exhibited marked synergy with A-1331852, a BCL-XL specific inhibitor, to induce cell death. Despite this selectivity and potency, A-1210477 induced profound structural changes in the mitochondrial network in several cell lines that were not phenocopied following MCL-1 RNA interference or transcriptional repression, suggesting that A-1210477 induces mitochondrial fragmentation in an MCL-1-independent manner. However, A-1210477-induced mitochondrial fragmentation was dependent upon DRP-1, and silencing expression levels of DRP-1 diminished not just mitochondrial fragmentation but also BH3 mimetic-mediated apoptosis. These findings provide new insights into MCL-1 ligands, and the interplay between DRP-1 and the anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family members in the regulation of apoptosis.