Overexpression of P-glycoprotein (P-gp), the protein product of the multidrug resistance gene (MDR1), confers a drug resistant phenotype on cells. This phenotype is reminiscent of human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV)-transformed leukemic cells, for which no consistently effective chemotherapeutic regime has been found. The presence of an active multiple drug resistance (MDR) phenotype in freshly isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from HTLV-I–infected subjects was investigated. Significant P-gp–mediated efflux activity and enhanced MDR1 mRNA expression was observed in nine of 10 HTLV-infected subjects. The development of MDR phenotypes was found to be independent of disease type or status with significant MDR activities being observed in adult T-cell leukemia (ATL), HTLV-associated myelopathy (HAM)/tropical spastic paraparesis (TSP), and asymptomatic HTLV-infected individuals. P-gp–mediated drug efflux was also found to be restricted to CD31 T-cell populations. Furthermore, we show the novel finding that the MDR1 gene promoter is transcriptionally activated by the HTLV-I tax protein, suggesting a molecular basis for the development of drug resistance in HTLV-I infections. These observations open up the possibility of new chemotherapeutic approaches to HTLV-associated diseases through the use of P-gp inhibitors
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