Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Biomedical Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Russell R. Broaddus, M.D., Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jonathan C. Trent, M.D., Ph.D.

Committee Member

Emil J. Freireich, M.D., D.Sc.

Committee Member

Edgar T. Walters, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joseph A. Ludwig, M.D.


Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are oncogene-addicted cancers driven by activating mutations in the genes encoding receptor tyrosine kinases KIT and PDGFR-α. Imatinib mesylate, a specific inhibitor of KIT and PDGFR-α signaling, delays progression of GIST, but is incapable of achieving cure. Thus, most patients who initially respond to imatinib therapy eventually experience tumor progression, and have limited therapeutic options thereafter. To address imatinib-resistance and tumor progression, these studies sought to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate apoptosis in GIST, and evaluate combination therapies that kill GISTs cells via complementary, but independent, mechanisms. BIM (Bcl-2 interacting mediator of apoptosis), a pro-apoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family, effects apoptosis in oncogene-addicted malignancies treated with targeted therapies, and was recently shown to mediate imatinib-induced apoptosis in GIST. This dissertation examined the molecular mechanism of BIM upregulation and its cytotoxic effect in GIST cells harboring clinically-representative KIT mutations. Additionally, imatinib-induced alterations in BIM and pro-survival Bcl-2 proteins were studied in specimens from patients with GIST, and correlated to apoptosis, FDG-PET response, and survival. Further, the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis was targeted therapeutically in GIST cells with the Bcl-2 inhibitor ABT-737. These studies show that BIM is upregulated in GIST cells and patient tumors after imatinib exposure, and correlates with induction of apoptosis, response by FDG-PET, and disease-free survival. These studies contribute to the mechanistic understanding of imatinib-induced apoptosis in clinically-relevant models of GIST, and may facilitate prediction of resistance and disease progression in patients. Further, combining inhibition of KIT and Bcl-2 induces apoptosis synergistically and overcomes imatinib-resistance in GIST cells. Given that imatinib-resistance and GIST progression may reflect inadequate BIM-mediated inhibition of pro-survival Bcl-2 proteins, the preclinical evidence presented here suggests that direct engagement of apoptosis may be an effective approach to enhance the cytotoxicity of imatinib and overcome resistance.


imatinib, apoptosis, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, GIST, BIM, Bcl-2, oncogene-addicted, targeted therapies, BH3-mimetic, ABT-737, navitoclax