Blood 2008 Dec 16;112(13):5141-9. Epub 2008 Sep 16.
Department of Hematology, Academic Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
In lymph node (LN) proliferation centers in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the environment protects from apoptotic and cytotoxic triggers. Here, we aimed to define the molecular basis for the increased drug resistance and searched for novel strategies to circumvent it. The situation in CLL LN could be mimicked by prolonged in vitro CD40 stimulation, which resulted in up-regulation of antiapoptotic Bcl-xL, A1/Bfl-1, and Mcl-1 proteins, and afforded resistance to various classes of drugs (fludarabine, bortezomib, roscovitine). CD40 stimulation also caused ERK-dependent reduction of Bim-EL protein, but ERK inhibition did not prevent drug resistance. Drugs combined with sublethal doses of the BH3-mimetic ABT-737 displayed partial and variable effects per individual CD40-stimulated CLL. The antiapoptotic profile of CD40-triggered CLL resembled BCR-Abl-dependent changes seen in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), which prompted application of c-Abl inhibitors imatinib or dasatinib. Both compounds, but especially dasatinib, prevented the entire antiapoptotic CD40 program in CLL cells, and restored drug sensitivity. These effects also occurred in CLL samples with dysfunctional p53. Importantly, ex vivo CLL LN samples also displayed strong ERK activation together with high Bcl-xL and Mcl-1 but low Bim levels. These data indicate that CLL cells in chemoresistant niches may be sensitive to therapeutic strategies that include c-Abl inhibitors.