Imatinib, a specific Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase inhibitor, is the most commonly used drug in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. However, optimal response is not achieved in up to 33% of patients. Therefore, development of novel therapeutic strategies for chronic myeloid leukemia is critical. Betulinic (1) and ursolic (2) acids are natural pentacyclic triterpenes that exhibit antileukemic activities. In this study, we evaluated the effects of pharmacomodulations at the C-3 position of the triterpene moiety of betulinic and ursolic acids on their activity against K562 leukemia cells. Six new derivatives (1a-2c) were synthesized and evaluated for pro-apoptotic and anti-proliferative effects in mammalian and leukemic cells. 2c derivative containing an amine group at the C-3 position of ursolic acid was the most active against leukemia cells with an IC value of 5.2 μM after 48 h of treatment. 2c did not exhibit cytotoxic effects against VERO and HepG2 cells and human lymphocytes, showing a good selectivity index for cancer over normal cells. Induced cell death by apoptosis via caspases 3 and 8, and also caused cell cycle arrest as evidenced by accumulation of cells in the G1 phase and decreased cell population in the G2 phase. Furthermore, co-treatment of 2c with imatinib, the chemotherapy drug most commonly used to treat leukemia, resulted in a synergistic effect. Our findings provide a strong rationale for further investigation of combination therapy using the 2c derivative and imatinib in pre-clinical studies.
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