Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is characterized by the accumulation in the blood and the primary lymphoid organs of long-lasting, mature, but non-functional B lymphocytes. Although CLL B cells can survive for long time periods in vivo, cells are undergoing apoptosis relatively quickly in vitro. This spontaneous apoptosis and their sensitivity to drugs is strongly reduced in presence of bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) and endothelial cells (EC), which provide anti-apoptotic stimuli to CLL cells via direct contact or secretion of soluble factors. We recently reported the first profiling of circulating miRNA obtained from plasma of CLL patients (Moussay et al., PNAS, 2011). Specific miRNAs were found at higher level in the plasma of CLL patients compared to healthy donors. Exosomes, which are small extracellular vesicles of 50-150 nm originating from endosomes, are now known to efficiently transport nucleic acids and transfer mRNA, microRNA and proteins to target cells. Therefore, exosomes constitute a new component of intercellular communication and their role in CLL remains totally unknown.

The specific miRNA signature from plasma of CLL patients combined with our observations that primary CLL B cells can transfer vesicles to MSC through 0.4 µm culture inserts in vitro prompted us to investigate whether CLL B cells secrete exosomes that could modify cells of the bone marrow microenvironment to produce tumor growth promoting factors locally in order to favor their own survival.

We isolated, purified and characterized exosomes derived from CLL cell lines, primary cells culture supernatants and plasma from CLL patients. Proteins, mRNA and microRNAs contents were evaluated by high-throughput methods (LC-MS, microarrays) revealing in particular the presence of oncogenic molecules. In vitro, purified CLL-exosomes were found to rapidly enter target cells (already after 1h in MSC and endothelial cells) and to transfer proteins and miRNA. Flow cytometry showed that transferred proteins were expressed at cell surface. Luciferase reporter assay confirmed that miRNAs were efficient in targeting cellular mRNA. Exosomes could also be taken up ex vivo and in vivo by mouse bone marrow cells. Functionally, CLL-exosomes activated key signaling pathways (PI3K, AKT, and MAPK) Immunoblotting indicated the rapid phosphorylation of kinases after 5 min of incubation with CLL-exosomes and the subsequent activation of the canonical NF-kB pathway. We also observed that CLL-exosomes modulated gene expression in target cells among which cytokines (BAFF, IL-6, and IL-8), chemokines (CCL2/MCP-1, CCL5/RANTES, and CXCL1), and other factors involved in cell adhesion and migration (ICAM-1 and MMP-1). These factors were also secreted in the supernatants of MSC and EC as detected by antibody arrays. Exosomes were also shown to increase MSC and EC proliferation, to stimulate actin remodeling, cell migration and to enhance EC angiogenic capabilities (tube formation and aortic ring assays).

In conclusion, CLL-exosomes contain pro-oncogenic molecules and strongly affect key functions of MSC and EC which are critical component of the bone marrow microenvironment. Activation of these cells by CLL-exosomes led to release of cytokines/chemokines and oncogenic factors that could promote angiogenesis and also favor leukemic cells survival and migration.

Our findings may lead to applications in both diagnosis and therapy development. Molecules identified at the surface or inside CLL-exosomes may be further used as cancer biomarkers. Finally, the description of cell-to-cell communication mechanisms will generate opportunities of innovative therapeutic strategies and confirms the crucial role of exosomes in the development of CLL.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.