Abstract 2333

Poster Board II-310

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a clinically heterogeneous disease. A very reliable prognosticator is the mutational status of the tumor immunoglobulin heavy chain variable region (IgVH): patients with unmutated (UM) IgVH have a worse prognosis than patients with mutated (M) IgVH. Soluble factors (i.e. IL-4 and CD40L) and cellular components of the local microenvironment [i.e. bone marrow stromal cells (BMSC) and nurse-like cells (NLCs)] are important survival factors for CLL B cells. It is currently unknown to what extent UM and M CLL cells depend on the local microenvironment for their survival.

We have evaluated the spontaneous apoptotic rate of tumor cells isolated by immunomagnetic selection from the peripheral blood (PB) of M and UM CLL patients. Leukemic cells purified by negative selection from the PB of UM CLL patients showed significantly higher rates of spontaneous apoptosis after long-term in vitro culture as compared to CLL cells isolated from M patients. Both M and UM CLL cells showed high basal level of Bcl-2 expression and NF-kB activity soon after purification. In vitro spontaneous apoptosis of purified UM CLL cells was associated with a progressive downregulation of the intracellular expression of Bcl-2 and with a complete loss of the active nuclear form of NF-kB. On the contrary, the higher long term viability of M CLL cells was paralleled by a maintained Bcl-2 and NF-kB expression. IL-4 and CD40L, used alone or in combination, as well as murine and human BMSC were capable of rescuing UM tumor cells from apoptosis. The pro-survival effect of these stimuli was exerted through the upregulation of Bcl-2 and was totally independent from the recovery of NF-kB nuclear translocation. We observed that UM CLL cells were less susceptible to spontaneous apoptosis when cultured as unfractionated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) as compared to purified leukemic cells. This higher cell viability was associated with a retained expression of Bcl-2 and of the nuclear form of NF-kB, thus suggesting the presence of a pro-survival element in the peripheral blood of these patients. The extremely low numbers of NLCs generated from PMBC of UM patients ruled out a role for these cells in supporting the survival of unpurified leukemic cells. Conversely, a pro-survival effect on UM CLL cells was exerted by autologous T cells. Indeed, a significant reduction in the apoptotic rate of leukemic cells was observed when purified UM cells were cultured in the presence of autologous peripheral blood T cells (PBT). The prosurvival effect of circulating T cells was particularly evident at high T:B ratio, did not require a cell-cell contact and was mediated by the upregulation of Bcl-2 and the activation of NF-kB in leukemic cells.

These data indicate that the survival of UM tumor cells is highly dependent on the action of multiple microenviromental stimuli. Conversely, M cells are intrinsically more resistant to apoptosis and minimally influenced by the local microenviroment. The higher dependency of UM CLL cells from extrinsic signals might be exploited to develop new therapies targeting the tumor microenvironment and to improve the outcome of more aggressive CLL.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.