In the lymph node (LN) microenvironment, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells are protected from apoptosis by upregulation of anti-apoptotic proteins. In vitro, this can be mimicked via CD40-stimulation of CLL cells, which also provides resistance to various chemotherapeutics. Novel drugs that target kinases involved in B cell signalling, including the broad spectrum kinase inhibitor dasatinib, are currently in clinical development for CLL. We have shown previously that dasatinib prevents CD40-mediated anti-apoptotic changes in CLL (Hallaert et Blood 2008). However, the kinase(s) involved remain unidentified. Here, we coupled dasatinib to an affinity matrix and pulled down its targets from CD40-stimulated CLL cells. By mass-spectrometry and Western blotting, Abl and Btk were identified as dominant targets of dasatinib. Functional analysis revealed that CD40-mediated anti-apoptotic signals and drug-resistance could be overcome both by dasatinib and the Abl inhibitor imatinib, but not by the novel Btk inhibitor PCI-32765 (ibrutinib), whereas BCR- and chemokine-controlled adhesion could be abolished by dasatinib and ibrutinib, but not by imatinib. Thus, dasatinib combines two key aspects that are clinically relevant: inhibition of Abl overrides chemoprotective survival signals, whereas inhibition of Btk impairs integrin-mediated adhesion of CLL cells in the microenvironmental niche.
This combined inhibition of Abl and Btk was put to an initial test in an open-label phase 2 trial of dasatinib combined with fludarabine in twenty refractory CLL patients. As might be expected based on the in vitro data, reductions in lymph node size were observed in most patients. A LN reduction of ≥20% provided a significant improved PFS (256 days) and OS (510 days) as compared to non-responders (80 days and 158 days respectively). Details of the clinical study will be presented separately. In conclusion, in agreement with in vitro molecular studies, dasatinib seems to have clinical efficacy in heavily pretreated refractory CLL patients. Combined, these data encourage further studies on a broad-spectrum kinase inhibitor like dasatinib in combination with other classes of drugs in relapsed and refractory CLL.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.