BACKGROUND: LGL leukemia is a neoplasm arising from either CD3+ T-cells or CD3 NK-cells. Autoimmune-mediated anemia, neutropenia, and rheumatoid arthritis occur frequently in these patients and immunosuppressive agents are used for these associated clinical syndromes. In our previous studies, we found that patients display a constitutively activated Ras and MAPK/ERK signaling cascade that may drive leukemia survival. A multicenter phase 2 clinical trial was initiated to treat LGL leukemia patients with the farnysltransferase-inhibitor R115777 (tipifarnib, Zarnestra®, Johnson & Johnson) that inhibits Ras and other farnesylated proteins. One of the goals of this study was to determine the shifts in cytokine production during therapy. We found that LGL cells treated with tipifarnib in vitro displayed a switch to Th2 (IL-4 and IL-10)-polarized differentiation. After tipifarnib treatment of LGL patients, antigen-activated T-cells produced greater amounts of Th2 (IL4/IL-10) cytokines but less Th1 (IFNγ/TNFα). In this study, we determined the mechanism governing tipifarnib-mediated Th2 polarization in T-cells.

METHODS: PBMCs were isolated from 10 healthy donors and from seven patients with T-LGL leukemia before and after treatment with tipifarnib 300 mg twice daily for 21 days of a 28- day cycle. LGL leukemia patients had increased numbers of αβ T lymphocytes and evidence of clonality in association with either neutropenia or transfusion-dependent anemia. Th1 and Th2 cytokines were determined by intracellular staining and flow cytometry after activation with anti-CD3 plus anti-CD28. In some experiments, Th1 polarization was induced by IL-12; whereas, Th2 was induced by IL-4. Expression of T-bet and GATA-3 transcription factors that regulate Th1 and Th2 polarization, respectively, phosphorylated (active) MAPK (ERK1 and ERK2), and total MAPK were measured by Western blots. FTI2153, tipifarnib, and geranylgeranyl transferase inhibitor(GGTI)-2417 were used compared to DMSO control.

RESULTS: PBMCs from patients with T-LGL leukemia displayed a dose and time-dependent increase in IL-4 and IL-10 production after drug treatment (average increase to 100% and 43%, respectively). A dose-dependent increase in these Th2 cytokines in T-cells from healthy donors showed that the farnesylated protein targeted by tipifarnib was not selectively expressed in LGL leukemia. Culture with IL-12 induced Th1 differentiation associated with ERK phosphorylation and increased T-bet expression. Pre-treatment with tipifarnib and FTI2153 but not GGTI2417 prior to IL-12 inhibited T-bet induction with no change in anti-CD3-induced MAPK leading to enhanced IL-4 signaling and greater Th2 polarization.

CONCLUSIONS: Our data reveal unique, previously unreported effects of FTIs on cytokine signaling in T-cells by inhibiting the induction of T-bet and blocking Th1 differentiation. These results are critical to determine the mechanism of action of tipifarnib in LGL leukemia and suggest that FTIs may be useful for autoimmune or lymphocyte-mediated disorders associated with excessive Th1 cytokine production.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Work supported by NIH-sponsored Bone Marrow Failures Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, tipifarnib provided by CTEP, and work sponsored by the NCI (grant CA11211201).

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.