Background: B-Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) is predominantly characterized as a clonal B-cell disorder where a minor fraction of CLL B cells proliferate, but the majority of these cells are non-cycling. Importantly, CLL B cells also exhibit apoptosis resistance that results from a complex set of redundant mechanisms. This latter feature presents a significant problem in relation to disease progression and developing effective therapies in CLL. Previously, we and others have reported that leukemic CLL cells spontaneously secrete pro-angiogenic vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that can significantly enhance CLL leukemic B cell apoptosis resistance via unknown mechanisms. In addition, the molecular mechanism of the constitutive upregulation of VEGF in CLL B cells is unknown.

Methods and Results: Here, we report that CLL B cells express a high level of HIF-1α protein under normoxic conditions as compared to that of normal B cells in Western blot analysis using a specific antibody. Accumulation of HIF-1α in CLL B cells resulted in upregulation of its downstream target VEGF. To comprehend this abnormal overexpression of HIF-1α, we have examined the status of the von Hippel-Lindau gene product (pVHL) that is responsible for HIF-1α degradation by Western blot analysis and found it to be either absent or notably low level in CLL B cells as compared to that of normal B cells. Furthermore, we have shown by in vitro reporter gene assays that miR-92a, a microRNA known to be overexpressed in CLL B cells, can target the VHL 3′-untranslated region (UTR) and is likely a reason for the depressed levels of pVHL in CLL B cells. To validate our hypothesis, we transiently transfected the human embryonic kidney cell line (293T) with miR-92a and observed a dose-dependent repression of pVHL level. Post-transcriptional regulation of the VHL gene was further confirmed when we observed a subtle but definite increase of the pVHL levels monitored by immunoblot following nucleofection of the antisense oligo targeted to miR-92a into primary CLL B cells. To examine whether HIF-1α is functionally active in CLL B cells, we performed co-immunoprecipitation experiments and found that HIF-1α forms an active complex by physical association with the transcriptional co-activator p300 and phospho-STAT3 in CLL B cells. The latter molecule is known to be constitutively expressed in CLL B cells but its function has been unknown. Subsequently, we have found via chromatin immunoprecipitation analyses in CLL B cells that HIF-1α and STAT3 are bound to the VEGF promoter and also recruit RNA polymerase II, further substantiating that this complex likely functions in the activation of VEGF transcription.

Summary: Overall, our data show that CLL B cells express constitutively elevated HIF-1α levels in normoxia due, at least in part, to miR-92a regulated diminished pVHL expression. This is a unique previously undescribed mechanism for enhanced HIF-1α levels in human malignancy. We believe that Increased VEGF expression is associated with the combined effects of HIF-1α, p300 and constitutively active STAT3 as a functional complex and is an explanation for the VEGF-based autocrine pathway found in CLL B cells. These findings now provide additional strategy points for interrupting the VEGF autocrine pathway in CLL B cells.

Disclosures: Kay:NIH-NCI: CA 116237

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