Background: For CML/ALL patients with refractory disease or at relapse after allogeneic stem cell transplantation (allo-PBSCT), one might administer tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) like imatinib (Glivec), nilotinib (Tasigna) and dasatinib (Sprycel), or donor lymphocyte infusions (DLIs). TKIs will inhibit the proliferation of CML progenitor cells, but might also hamper the graft-versus-leukemia (GVL) effect considered to be crucial for the eradication of the disease. Moreover, CD8+ T cells specific for cytomegalovirus (CMVpp65) might be impaired.

Methods: Imatinib, nilotinib and dasatinib were added at concentrations of 0–20 μM, 0–4 μM and 0–50 nM respectively to proliferation assays of Tregs and CD8+ T cells. Mixed lymphocyte peptide cultures (MLPCs) were performed with peptides derived from

  • influenza matrix protein (IMP),

  • CMVpp65 as a viral antigen and

  • the receptor for hyaluronic acid mediated motility (RHAMM-R3) as a leukemia-associated antigen.

CD8+ T cells from these MLPCs from healthy donors and patients with CML after allo-PSCT by tetramer staining/multi-color flow cytometry and enzyme linked immunosorbent spot (ELISPOT) assays, as well as Tregs after 3 days of culture with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28. Activity of T cells from the peripheral blood of patients under dasatinib and after withdrawal of dasatinib. Western blots (WBs) for T cell receptor (TCR) related molecules and NFkB were performed.

Results: The release of interferon gamma and granzyme B by CD8+ HLA-A2/tetramer+effector T cells specific for IMP, CMVpp65 and RHAMM-R3 was inhibited by all TKIs in a dose-dependent fashion and correlating to the time of TKI exposure. The inhibition was reversible after removal of the drugs from the MLPC. The proliferation and function of Tregs were also significantly inhibited by TKIs in a dose-related fashion. In WBs, TKIs decreased the expression of ZAP70, Lck and Akt, as well as NFκB p65/p100/p105 and c-Rel. T cell activity was impaired when TKIs were clinically administered. The potency of T cell inhibition was imatinib: nilotinib: dasatinib = 1:2:40 under therapeutical serum respectively culture medium levels (2 μM:1 μM: 25 nM).

Conclusion: When administering TKIs to patients after allo-PBSCT, the inhibition of both CD8+ and Tregs must be taken into consideration with respect to GVL and anti-viral T cell response. Inhibition of CD8+ T lymphocytes was partially reversible after removal of TKIs from the cultures. Using western blotting analysis, we found that these effects are mediated at least in part by down-regulating the levels of phosphorylation of TCR and NF-κB family members.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.