Background: While B-cell receptor (BCR) signaling is essential for the development, of normal B cells, its aberrant hyper-activation results in neoplastic transformation of B-lymphocytes. Recent investigations using small molecule inhibitors validate the BCR pathway as a valuable target. Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) is one of the components of a signaling hub that transduces signals from the BCR into the cell for its activation and has been shown to be a therapeutic target. Ibrutinib (PCI-32765), an irreversible BTK inhibitor has shown clinical efficacy in CLL, mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and Waldenströms macroglobulinemia (WM). Ibrutinib binds to cysteine-481 of the BTK protein and blocks its phosphorylation, resulting in termination of BCR-mediated activation of cells with a concomitant induction of death. Despite the clinical success of ibrutinib, a high percentage of patients achieve only partial response and eventually acquire resistance to the drug, resulting in aggressive relapse of the disease. A mutation of Cys481-Ser in BTK (ibrutinib-BTK binding site) has been reported to be one of the reasons for the development of ibrutinib resistance (IR). To understand the mechanisms resulting in acquisition of IR, we developed preclinical models of IR in WM and MCL.

Materials: Ibrutinib was obtained from Pharmacyclics, CA. Validated human WM models (BCWM.1, RPCI-WM1 and MWCL.1 cell lines) and human MCL models (Jeko-1 and Maver cell lines) were used for the study.

Results: BTK was constitutively phosphorylated at Y223 and Y551 in all the cell lines tested and this was inhibited by ibrutinib in a dose dependent manner. Phosphorylation of other kinases in the cascade such as SYK (Y323 and Y525/526) and PLCg2 (Y759 and Y1217) were also inhibited while AKT phosphorylation at both Ser473 and Thr308 was consistently increased in presence of ibrutinib. Treatment with ibrutinib induced cell cycle arrest in the G1 phase by 24h followed by apoptosis. Cell growth assays (MTS assay) showed that BCWM.1 was the most sensitive cell line followed by MWCL-1, RPCI-WM1, Maver and Jeko-1. Exposure of WM and MCL cells for prolonged periods of time with progressively increasing concentrations of ibrutinib resulted in outgrowth of clones (IR WM and MCL cell lines) that were resistant to apoptosis with a slow growth rate as compared to wild type parental cells. IR cells attained 2 – 20 fold resistance to ibrutinib as compared to the respective parental lines as determined by MTS assay. Sequence analysis of the BTK gene in all the cell lines revealed no mutation in IR cells at Cys481 suggesting that in an acquired IR state, resistance to ibrutinib can be developed independent of BTK Cys481 mutation. Interestingly, we found p-BTK levels to be markedly reduced in IR cells. Ibrutinib reversal experiments suggested that while a continuous presence of ibrutinib is needed for inhibition of BTK phosphorylation, a stable IR state could be maintained (for >1 month) in the absence of ibrutinib. This suggested the cells reliance on a parallel survival pathway, independent of BTK phosphorylation. Focused mRNA (Nanostring nCounter assay) and immunoblot analysis revealed significant changes in the expression profiles of several cellular elements. These included transcription factors such as PU.1, IRF4, BLIMP1, BCL-6 b-catenin as well as the phosphorylated ERK1/2, STAT1 and 3 suggesting a reprogramming of critical cellular networks, which IR tumor cells might be utilizing to overcome ibrutinib-induced cytotoxicity. Importantly, we observed that IR cells retained high levels of p-AKT and showed an increase in expression of BCL2 family members, as well as BCL-2 itself. Treatment of IR cells with ibrutinib +/- MK2206 (AKT inhibitor), or ABT-199 (BCL-2 inhibitor), synergistically induced cytotoxicity in IR cells, suggesting the importance of these parallel survival pathways (AKT/BCL2) in maintaining an IR state.

Conclusion: Here we demonstrate that in the absence of BTK Cys481 mutation, an IR state is associated with reprogramming of transcriptional networks countering ibrutinib-induced toxicity by activation of AKT and BCL-2. Our current data exposes multiple vulnerabilities within IR cells, which can be therapeutically exploited to potentially delay onset of IR, by targeting alternative oncogenic mechanisms that are activated in presence of sustained BTK inhibition.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.