Mesenchymal (MES) and proneural (PN) are two distinct glioma stem cell (GSC) populations that drive therapeutic resistance in glioblastoma (GBM). We screened a panel of 650 small molecules against patient-derived GBM cells to discover compounds targeting specific GBM subtypes. Arsenic trioxide (ATO), an FDA-approved drug that crosses the blood–brain barrier, was identified as a potent PN-specific compound in the initial screen and follow-up validation studies. Furthermore, MES and PN GSCs exhibited differential sensitivity to ATO. As ATO has been shown to activate the MAPK-interacting kinase 1 (MNK1)-eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4E (eIF4E) pathway and subsequent mRNA translation in a negative regulatory feedback manner, the mechanistic role of ATO resistance in MES GBM was explored. In GBM cells, ATO-activated translation initiation cellular events via the MNK1–eIF4E signaling axis. Furthermore, resistance to ATO in intracranial PDX tumors correlated with high eIF4E phosphorylation. Polysomal fractionation and microarray analysis of GBM cells were performed to identify ATO’s effect on mRNA translation and enrichment of anti-apoptotic mRNAs in the ATO-induced translatome was found. Additionally, it was determined that MNK inhibition sensitized MES GSCs to ATO in neurosphere and apoptosis assays. Finally, examination of the effect of ATO on patients from a phase I/II clinical trial of ATO revealed that PN GBM patients responded better to ATO than other subtypes as demonstrated by longer overall and progression-free survival.
Implications: These findings raise the possibility of a unique therapeutic approach for GBM, involving MNK1 targeting to sensitize MES GSCs to drugs like arsenic trioxide.