Key Points

  • Nurse-like cells express Wnt5a to induce ROR1-dependent stimulation of NF-κB, which leads to autocrine IL-6-induced STAT3 activation in CLL cells.

  • Cirmtuzumab inhibits Wnt5a-induced, ROR1-dependent stimulation of NF-κB, and thereby represses autocrine IL-6-dependent STAT3 activation in CLL.


Coculture of nurse-like cells (NLCs) with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells induced leukemia cell phosphorylation of STAT3 (pSTAT3), which could be blocked by anti-Wnt5a antibodies or the anti-ROR1 monoclonal antibody, cirmtuzumab. Time-course studies revealed Wnt5a could induce activation of NF-κB within 30 minutes, but required more than 3 hours to induce pSTAT3. Culture of isolated CLL cells for 24 hours revealed Wnt5a-induced expression of interleukin 6 (IL-6), IL-8, CCL2, CCL3, CCL4, and CXCL1, which in turn could induce pSTAT3 in unstimulated CLL cells within 30 minutes. We found that Wnt5a could induce CLL cell expression of NF-κB target genes, including IL-6, and that this effect could be blocked by cirmtuzumab or drugs that inhibit NF-κB. Examination of CLL cells and plasma collected from patients treated with cirmtuzumab revealed reduced levels of phosphorylated p65 and diminished expression of NF-κB and STAT3 target genes in CLL cells, as well as lower plasma levels of IL-6, in the samples after therapy. Collectively, these studies indicate that Wnt5a/ROR1-dependent signaling contributes to CLL cell activation of NF-κB, which in turn causes autocrine IL-6-induced activation of pSTAT3. As such, this study demonstrates that cirmtuzumab can inhibit leukemia cell activation of both NF-κB and STAT3 in patients with CLL.

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