In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), B-cell receptor (BCR) signaling is key to survival and proliferation, and can be effectively targeted by the Bruton's tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitor ibrutinib. BCR surface IgM (sIgM) levels and signaling capacity are low but variable in CLL. The variability has clinical consequences and relatively high sIgM in circulating cells is associated with aggressive disease, a higher proliferative component and higher levels of adhesion and migration receptors (D'Avola, Drennan et al, Blood 2016).

The aim of this study was to investigate the expression and function of sIgM and other surface markers on the circulating tumor cells of CLL patients following one week of ibrutinib therapy. Expression of markers associated with the BCR complex (IgM, IgD, CD19), and with adhesion or migration (CD38, CD49d, CXCR4) was assessed by flow cytometry in 13 CLL patients prior to and following one week of therapy. Signaling capacity was measured by immunoblotting following sIgM or CXCR4 stimulation. N-glycosylation status of the µ-heavy chains was measured by immunoblotting after biotinylation of cell surface proteins to determine IgM maturation (Krysov et al, Blood 2010).

Following one week of treatment basal activity of BTK was significantly reduced compared with pre-treatment (P=0.002), and anti-IgM induced BTK auto-phosphorylation was completely suppressed, confirming full inhibition of BTK in vivo. Expression of sIgM, but not of sIgD, increased dramatically (P=0.005), with little change in the other receptors. The increase was similar in the tissue-egressed CXCR4dimCD5hi cells and in the CXCR4brightCD5low long-resting cells of the circulation. Increased sIgM expression associated with the fully N-glycosylated form of sIgM, characteristic of the absence of antigen engagement. Also, it correlated with increased capacity to phosphorylate SYK following anti-IgM stimulation (r=0.91, P<0.0001). Conversely, CXCL12-induced CXCR4 signaling, measured by ERK phosphorylation, was fully suppressed.

Whilst ibrutinib induces a rapid and persistent redistribution of CLL cells into the blood, early suspension is typically associated with reduction of the lymphocytosis, nodal progression and short survival. These data reveal a dangerous early phenomenon during ibrutinib in which IgM expression has increased in the circulating cells, resulting in enhanced IgM-mediated signaling capacity through SYK. CXCR4 inhibition may prevent migration into tissue during ibrutinib and avoid (super)antigen encounter, but cells could be at risk of increased IgM mediated proliferation and disease progression if ibrutinib is withdrawn at this stage.


Packham:Aquinox Pharmaceuticals: Research Funding; Karus Therapeutics: Other: Share Holder & Founder. Steele:Portola Pharmaceuticals: Honoraria.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

Sign in via your Institution