Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia (WM) is an indolent B-cell malignancy that is characterized by bone marrow infiltration of lymphoplasmacytic cells and excessive synthesis of IgM. Despite improved treatment strategies and increased understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms contributing to malignant disease progression, WM remains incurable. While whole exome sequencing analysis has revealed the genomic events associated with malignant B cell transformation in WM, the bone marrow (BM) microenvironment is also emerging as a major player in the pathogenesis of WM. Previously, our lab has reported that an array of cytokines, including IL-21 and IL-6 are increased in the WM BM and such increases are associated with high proliferation rates and IgM secretion by WM cells. In this study, we aimed to identify how immune checkpoint molecules in the BM microenvironment, specifically programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) and its ligands PD-L1 and PD-L2, contribute to malignant cell expansion in WM.

Using Real-Time PCR analysis, we show that the expression of PD-1, PD-L1 and PD-L2 are all significantly elevated in the cells of WM BM as compared to their normal BM counterparts. Interestingly, PD-L1 expression is also upregulated in the malignant WM cells. These findings were further confirmed by flow cytometry analysis. Subsequent in vitro analysis showed that PD-L1 and PD-L2 are cleaved from the WM cells and these soluble ligands (sPD-L1 and sPD-L2) are able to bind to the cells in the BM microenvironment, including T-cells. This results in reduced activation and proliferation of T-cells, and is accompanied by a reduction in cyclin A and p-ERK levels. In validation of the in vitro data, we also found sPD-L1 and sPD-L2 in the bone marrow plasma obtained from WM patients. While sPD-L2 was found to be present in both WM and normal BM plasma (though in a reduced level in WM), sPD-L1 was exclusive to the WM samples, implying that the function of these molecules are differentially regulated in WM. Furthermore, overexpression of PD-L1 in a WM cell line, MWCL.1, resulted in an increase in IgM secretion. Interestingly, treatment with IL-21 increased the expression of PD-L1 in WM cells, indicating that elevated IL-21 in WM BM could contribute to increased expression of PD-L1 by malignant WM cells.

In summary, our data support a role for PD-1 ligands as immune regulatory molecules in WM. Further studies are ongoing to explore the molecular mechanisms by which PD-1/PD-L1/PD-L2 signaling affects the pathophysiology of WM cells.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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