Mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) is an aggressive and incurable B-cell lymphoma for which new treatment options are needed. Recent phase II clinical trials reported response to the proteasome inhibitor bortezomib (BZM) in up to 50% of pre-treated patients. Despite the successful use of BZM in the clinic, the precise molecular mechanisms underlying sensitivity or resistance to BZM in MCL remain largely unknown. To address this issue, we used U133A 2.0 microarrays to analyze gene expression in MCL cells from peripheral blood of 5 patients with previously untreated leukemic MCL. Samples were collected immediately before (0h) and at 3, 6, 24, and 72 hours after administration of BZM (1.5 mg/m2). After the blood collection at 72 hours, a second dose of BZM was given, and cells were collected 24 hours later. Two patients had major reductions in peripheral ALC already at 24h from dose 2 and normalized their blood counts by day 21 (sensitive), 1 patient had no change over a full course of 4 injections (resistant), and 2 patients had some decrease in ALC (intermediate). Genes differentially expressed with treatment were ranked according to the degree of correlation with time (Pearson). We used gene set enrichment analysis (GSEA) to detect distinct functional gene expression signatures; the most consistently up-regulated of which was a signature composed by proteasome and chaperone genes. To confirm and expand these findings, we exposed 10 MCL cell lines (7 sensitive, IC50<10nM; 3 resistant IC50>10nM) to 10nM of BZM and analyzed gene expression at 1, 3, 6 and 24 hours. The proteasome signature was again dominant, and the majority of the up-regulated genes in both clinical and cell line samples shared binding motifs for the NRF, MAF, ATF and HSF families of transcription factors (TF). Thus genes up-regulated by BZM in vivo and in cell lines predominantly belonged to a functional response to oxidative and/or endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress. Under physiologic conditions, this is thought to help restore homeostasis and protect from apoptosis. This response could therefore contribute to drug resistance or be a marker of an overwhelming insult before the cells undergo apoptosis. To address this issue, we investigated differences in response to BZM between sensitive and resistant cell lines. The proteasome signature was more strongly up-regulated in sensitive cells than in resistant cells, and the ER-stress response as measured by genes controlled by the NRF and MAF family of TFs was also more highly expressed in the sensitive group. Consistently, expression of HMOX1, which encodes a key enzyme in the antioxidant response, was increased by 32× at 24h in the sensitive group, but only by 4× in the resistant group; the expression of DDIT3, a transcription factor implicated in a pro-apoptotic response to ER-stress was 5.5-fold up-regulated in the sensitive cells but only 1.4-fold in the resistant cells. We conclude that in sensitive cells BZM induces an overwhelming ER-stress response with high expression of proteasome components and chaperone proteins that could serve as a predictor of response to BZM.

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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