Introduction. Ibrutinib inhibits the BTK molecule downstream the B-cell receptor (BCR). Though highly active in high risk chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the most typical response achievable in patients is a minimal residual disease (MRD) positive partial remission (PR) which is maintained until the development of genetically driven resistance caused by the acquisition of mutations in the BTK or PLCG2 genes. The study aims at characterizing the adaptation process allowing residual CLL cells to persist despite BTK inhibition. Methods. The IOSI-EMA-001 study (NCT02827617) is an observational study consisting in the prospective and longitudinal collection of peripheral blood samples and clinical data from high risk CLL patients treated with ibrutinib. Peripheral blood CLL cells longitudinally drawn from patients before treatment start and at fixed timepoints under ibrutinib were monitored by: i) next generation flow cytometry approaches for changes in proliferation rate, surfaceome, and pathway activation; and ii) CAPP-seq targeted deep next generation (sensitivity ~10-3) for clonal evolution. Results. The study cohort comprised 31 high risk CLL patients, including 15 treatment naïve, 16 relapsed, 80% IGHV unmutated, 42% 17p deleted and 55% TP53 mutated. Median duration of ibrutinib treatment was 45 weeks (24-72 weeks). All patients obtained a MRD positive PR that was maintained in all but one who progressed with a PLCG2 mutation (VAF 3%). Compared to baseline, under ibrutinib therapy CLL cells slowed down their proliferation, as suggested by the decreased expression of Ki-67, the reduction of the proliferating fraction (CXCR4dimCD5bright), and the increase of the resting fraction (CXCR4brightCD5dim). Compared to baseline, under ibrutinib therapy CLL cells also upregulated BCR and adhesion/homing proteins, and decreased the expression of BCR inhibitor proteins. Upon stimulation of the BCR with anti-IgM, the downstream path through pBTK and pPLCG2 was inhibited by ibrutinib, while conversely the downstream path through pAKT and pERK was still inducible throughout all the assessed timepoints. The proportion of CLL cells harboring nuclear localization of NF-kB progressively increased over time under ibrutinib. NF-kB nuclear localization was inducible throughout all the assessed timepoints by CD40L stimulation of the non-canonical NF-kB pathway, but not by anti-IgM stimulation of the BCR/canonical NF-kB pathway. Overall, 880 individual mutations were longitudinally discovered and monitored across a total of 121 sequential timepoints collected during ibrutinib treatment. Clonal evolution was observed in (67.7%) cases, a proportion rate previously documented in CLL treated with chemoimmunotherapy. Clonal evolution appeared to be heterogeneous involving different genes without a stereotypic targeting. Consistently, none of the main driver gene mutations was homogeneously selected or suppressed by ibrutinib suggesting that the biological adaptation of CLL cells under ibrutinib is not genetically driven. Clonal evolution propensity was not associated with any of the biomarkers of the disease, and it did not decrease over time under ibrutinib. Conclusions. Taken together these results suggest that residual CLL cells persisting under ibrutinib therapy adapt their phenotype by upregulating adhesion molecules, chemokine receptors and BCR molecules, and by maintaining a competence of BCR signaling through the PI3K/AKT/ERK pathway. The progressive selection of CLL cells having NF-kB in the nucleus, likely due to the BTK independent non-canonical NF-kB pathway, might explain their survival despite ibrutinib therapy. Finally, clonal evolution is not suppressed by ibrutinib chemotherapy, and despite does not seem to be directly involved in such adaptation process, may ultimately favor the acquisition of BTK and PLCG2 ibrutinib resistance mutations.


Zucca:Celltrion: Consultancy; AstraZeneca: Consultancy. Ghia:Sunesis: Honoraria, Research Funding; Novartis: Honoraria, Research Funding; AbbVie, Inc: Honoraria, Research Funding; Acerta: Honoraria, Research Funding; Janssen: Honoraria, Research Funding; Gilead: Honoraria, Research Funding; BeiGene: Honoraria, Research Funding. Montillo:Janssen: Consultancy, Honoraria; Gilead: Consultancy, Honoraria, Speakers Bureau; AbbVie: Consultancy, Honoraria, Speakers Bureau; Roche: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding. Tedeschi:Janssen: Consultancy, Speakers Bureau; Gilead: Consultancy; AbbVie: Consultancy. Gaidano:AbbVie: Consultancy, Honoraria; Gilead: Consultancy, Honoraria; Amgen: Consultancy, Honoraria; Janssen: Consultancy, Honoraria; Morphosys: Honoraria; Roche: Consultancy, Honoraria.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.