During B cell development, cell proliferation and survival are regulated by stage-specific transcription factors. Accordingly, distinct oncogenic pathways are employed by B cell lymphomas representing different stages of B cell development. Diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL) contains at least two main phenotypic subtypes, i.e. the germinal center B cell-like (GCB-DLBCL) and the activated B cell-like (ABC-DLBCL) groups. It has been shown that GCB-DLBCL responds favorably to chemotherapy and expresses high levels of BCL6, a transcription repressor known to play a causative role in lymphomagenesis. In comparison, ABC-DLBCL has lower levels of BCL6, constitutively activated NF-kappaB and tends to be refractory to chemotherapy. In this study, we investigated the relationship between BCL6 and STAT3 expression/activation in DLBCL and normal GC B cells. Our results demonstrate that BCL6 directly inhibits transcription of the STAT3 gene by binding to two BCL6 sites in its 5′ regulatory region. As a result, high level STAT3 expression and activation are preferentially detected in ABC-DLBCL and BCL6-negative normal germinal center B cells. Specifically, in tonsillar GCs, STAT3 expression and activation is restricted to a previously uncharacterized subset of BCL6Blimp-1 B cells in the apical light zone. The location and phenotype of these cells suggest that they are in the process of exiting the BCL6-directed GC program and transitioning to a plasma cell differentiation process governed by Blimp-1. The reciprocal relationship between BCL6 and STAT3 is also conserved in DLBCL such that STAT3 expression and activation is preferentially associated with the BCL6-low, ABC subtype. Most importantly, inactivating STAT3 by either AG490 or small interference RNA in ABC-DLBCL cells inhibits cell proliferation and triggers apoptosis. These phenotypes are accompanied by decreased expression of several known STAT3 target genes, including c-Myc, JunB and Mcl-1, and increased expression of the cell cycle inhibitor p27. In addition to identifying STAT3 as a novel BCL6 target gene, our results define STAT3 activation as a second oncogenic pathway operating in ABC-DLBCL and suggest that blocking STAT3 may be potentially therapeutic in treatment of these aggressive lymphomas.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.