Targeting B-cell receptor (BCR) downstream pathways is of therapeutic importance in eradicating chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells. Members of the protein kinase C (PKC) family play an important role in B-cell activation. PKC-β has recently been shown to be over-expressed in CLL and essential to CLL development in the TCL1 mouse model. Mice deficient in PKC-β exhibit a survival defect in response to BCR stimulation, correlating with an inability to induce the NF-κB-dependent anti-apoptotic proteins as Bcl-xL and A1. Moreover, PKC-β-dependent activation of NF-κB in stromal cells is pivotal for the survival of B-CLL cells in vivo; wherein PKC-β inhibition was shown to prevent microenvironment protection of CLL. Additionally, PKC-β lies downstream of PLC-γ2 where activating mutations have been noted in BTK (ibrutinib) resistant patients, which conveys a potential mechanism to target resistance related to mutations in this target protein. Therefore exploration of a PCK-β inhibitor in CLL is highly justified and innovative. Sotrastaurin (AEB071) is an orally administered potent inhibitor of classical and novel PKC isotypes; with strong and specific activity on PKC-α, PKC-β and PKC-θ and lesser activity on PKC-δ, PKC-ε, and PKC-η. Pre-clinically, AEB071 has demonstrated in vivo pre-clinical activity in activated B-cell diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) models and is currently being tested for efficacy in CD79b mutated DLBCL. Since PKC-β is indispensable for BCR-induced NF-κB activation and B-cell survival, herein we evaluate the impact of AEB071 on CLL cell survival as a promising therapeutic to target this pathway.

Our preliminary work demonstrated that AEB071 was markedly cytotoxic to CLL cells in a dose-dependent (≤6.25uM, p<0.001) and time-dependent manner (p=0.011) as measured by MTS analysis. In a whole blood assay, AEB071 exhibits a retained selective cytotoxicity against tumor cells with a modest reduction in B-CLL cells whereas no effect on T-cells or natural killer cells was detected in CLL patient samples. Notably, upon treatment of blood from healthy subjects, AEB071 showed no toxic effects on normal B-cells, T-cells and natural killer cells. AEB071 inhibits CPG-induced survival of CLL cells in vitro (p<0.01), and effectively blocks the protection induced by soluble factors such as CD40L, IL-4, and TNF (p<0.01), which are known to reduce the spontaneous apoptosis associated with CLL cells. Similar effects were observed with stromal cell contact; wherein AEB071 showed enhanced cytotoxic potency on CLL cells under co-culture conditions with stromal cells compared to CLL alone (p<0.05). Additionally, AEB071 attenuated anti-IgM-induced survival of CLL cells with a modest induction of apoptosis (p<0.001). Furthermore, treatment of PMA- or BCR-activated CLL cells with AEB071 could effectively abrogate downstream survival pathways including ERK1/2, p38MAPK, AKT, GSK3β, and NF-κB as revealed by immunoblot analysis. Collectively, this data indicate that therapeutic strategies to inhibit PKC-β have the potential to disrupt signaling from the microenvironment that lead to in vivo CLL cell survival and potentially drug resistance. Current studies are ongoing to evaluate the in vivo tolerability and therapeutic efficacy of AEB071 in the Eμ-TCL1 transgenic mouse model of CLL.

In conclusion, PKC-β represents an innovative target for CLL and therefore, future efforts targeting PKC with the PKC inhibitor AEB071 as monotherapy in clinical trials of relapsed and refractory CLL patients may be warranted.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.