Alemtuzumab is a highly effective monoclonal antibody therapy for some B-cell disorders, and has been suggested as a possible therapeutic agent for treatment of myeloma. Monoclonal antibody therapeutic efficacy is closely associated with the expression level of the therapeutic target, as demonstrated by the lack of efficacy of single-agent rituximab in CLL. However, there are conflicting reports about the expression levels of CD52, the target for alemtuzumab, in plasma cell disorders. The aim of this study is to assess a large series of cases of plasma cell and B-cell disorders, utilising a standard approach to allow comparison of the target molecule.

Plasma cells were assessed from patients with myeloma at presentation or relapse (n=106), monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS, n=34), and from normal controls (n=19). In addition, B-cells were assessed from patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL, n=87), diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL, n=10), follicular lymphoma (FCL, n=9), Waldenstroms macroglobulinaemia (WM, n=20), and also from normal bone marrow (n=37). Normal and neoplastic B-cells showed expression of CD52 (>20% of cells above the CD3-control levels) in all patients except for 1/10 DLBL. B-CLL and WM are known to show responses to single-agent alemtuzumab therapy, and these two disorders had the highest levels of expression. In contrast, B-progenitor cells in normal bone marrow are unaffected by alemtuzumab, and proliferate during alemtuzumab treatment in CLL patients. The levels of CD52 expression by normal B-progenitors were 3-fold lower than CLL/WM. In DLBL and FCL, the B-cells showed very similar levels of CD52 expression to normal B-progenitors, on average 2.8-fold lower than CLL.

All plasma cells, whether neoplastic (CD19− or CD19+56+) or normal (CD19+56−), showed much lower levels of expression than normal and neoplastic B-cells. Plasma cell CD52 expression was detectable in 68% of normal controls (13/19), 50% of MGUS patients (17/34), and only 43% of myeloma patients (46/106). Expression was uni-modal in all cases. There was significantly lower expression of CD52 by myeloma plasma cells than by their normal counterparts (median 2.4-fold decrease, P=0.03). Neoplastic plasma cell CD52 expression showed a high degree of inter-patient variation, but fewer than 10% of myeloma patients (7/106) had CD52 expression at a similar level to CLL cells. Neoplastic plasma cell CD52 expression was approximately 6-fold lower than that of normal B-progenitors, and nearly 20-fold lower than that of CLL cells.

In summary, CD52 expression is not detectable above control levels in a significant proportion of myeloma patients. In cases with detectable CD52 expression, the antigen is at a much lower level than is present on normal B-progenitors, which actively proliferate during alemtuzumab therapy. The risk of immunosuppression due to depletion of residual normal B/T-cells must also be considered. As alemtuzumab efficacy appears to correlate with CD52 expression levels, myeloma is highly unlikely to respond to alemtuzumab as a single agent except in rare cases. However, alemtuzumab is more likely to be effective in the IgM immunosecretory disorders which show strong CD52 expression.

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