Translational development of difluoromethylornithine (DFMO) for the treatment of neuroblastoma
Neuroblastoma is a childhood tumor in which MYC oncogenes are commonly activated to drive tumor progression. Survival for children with high-risk neuroblastoma remains poor despite treatment that incorporates high-dose chemotherapy, stem cell support, surgery, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. More effective and less toxic treatments are sought and one approach under clinical development involves re-purposing the anti-protozoan drug difluoromethylornithine (DFMO; Eflornithine) as a neuroblastoma therapeutic. DFMO is an irreversible inhibitor of ornithine decarboxylase (Odc), a MYC target gene, bona fide oncogene, and the rate-limiting enzyme in polyamine synthesis. DFMO is approved for the treatment of Trypanosoma brucei gambiense encephalitis (“African sleeping sickness”) since polyamines are essential for the proliferation of these protozoa. However, polyamines are also critical for mammalian cell proliferation and the finding that MYC coordinately regulates all aspects of polyamine metabolism suggests polyamines may be required to support cancer promotion by MYC. Pre-emptive blockade of polyamine synthesis is sufficient to block tumor initiation in an otherwise fully penetrant transgenic mouse model of neuroblastoma driven by MYCN, underscoring the necessity of polyamines in this process. Moreover, polyamine depletion regimens exert potent anti-tumor activity in pre-clinical models of established neuroblastoma as well, in combination with numerous chemotherapeutic agents and even in tumors with unfavorable genetic features such as MYCN, ALK or TP53 mutation. This has led to the testing of DFMO in clinical trials for children with neuroblastoma. Current trial designs include testing lower dose DFMO alone (2,000 mg/m2/day) starting at the completion of standard therapy, or higher doses combined with chemotherapy (up to 9,000 mg/m2/day) for patients with relapsed disease that has progressed. In this review we will discuss important considerations for the future design of DFMO-based clinical trials for neuroblastoma, focusing on the need to better define the principal mechanisms of anti-tumor activity for polyamine depletion regimens. Putative DFMO activities that are both cancer cell intrinsic (targeting the principal oncogenic driver, MYC) and cancer cell extrinsic (altering the tumor microenvironment to support anti-tumor immunity) will be discussed. Understanding the mechanisms of DFMO activity are critical in determining how it might be best leveraged in upcoming clinical trials. This mechanistic approach also provides a platform by which iterative pre-clinical testing using translational tumor models may complement our clinical approaches.