Platelets play a key role in innate immunity and can interact with bacteria through multiple molecular mechanisms. One key receptor for platelet-bacteria interactions is FcγRIIa, a low affinity IgG immune receptor found on the surface of platelets, which is associated with platelet aggregation, phagocytosis and the release of bactericidal substances and cytokines from alpha and dense granules. The signalling pathways that regulate FcγRIIa mediated platelet responses to bacteria are not fully understood. Downstream of the FcγRIIa receptor is the protein Bruton's tyrosine kinase (Btk) and potentially other Tec family kinases, yet the role of these kinases in platelet-bacteria interactions is unknown. Btk is a therapeutic target in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) with inhibitors of Btk (iBtks) including ibrutinib and acalabrutinib. However, iBtks have off-target effects on platelets, inhibiting aggregation with associated haemorrhagic side effects. iBtk treatment is also associated with a higher incidence of infection in CLL patients.

The effect of iBtks on platelet immune function has not been evaluated. We hypothesise that Btk has a role in platelet FcγRIIa signalling in response to bacterial agonists, and that iBtks inhibit such responses, contributing towards the increased risk of infection seen with such therapies in CLL.

We show that ibrutinib and acalabrutinib inhibit healthy donor FcγRIIa-mediated platelet aggregation, alpha and dense granule release in response to incubation with Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli, and also in response to FcγRIIa crosslinking with the monoclonal antibody IV.3 (anti-FcγRIIa). The observed lack of granule secretion will reduce the bactericidal substances released by the platelet, as well as the amount of cytokine and chemokine secretion limiting cross-talk with other immune cells. Phosphorylation of Btk at tyrosine 223 (a marker of Btk activation) was detected in response to FcγRIIa agonists, and was inhibited by both ibrutinib and acalabrutinib.

Little is known about the effect of iBtk treatment on CLL-platelet responses to bacteria. CLL patients tend to be on concurrent medications for comorbid conditions that could alter platelet responses. We show that treatment-naïve and ibrutinib-treated CLL platelets have aggregation and alpha granule release to thrombin receptor activator peptide 6 and ADP comparable to healthy controls, indicating that CLL platelet responses to these FcγRIIa-independent agonists are normal. Moreover, platelets derived from iBtk naïve CLL patients aggregate normally to bacteria in the presence of autologous plasma. However, platelets from ibrutinib-treated CLL patients have significantly inhibited aggregation and alpha granule release in response to S.aureus, E.coli, and IV.3 crosslinking. Moreover, Btk is phosphorylated at Y223 in response to bacterial agonists in treatment-naïve, but not in ibrutinib-treated CLL platelets, highlighting the lack of Btk activation in iBtk-treated patients.

An X-linked agammaglobulinaemia (XLA) patient with a known Btk loss of function mutation was examined to investigate if Btk is vital for the FcγRIIa pathway. XLA-derived platelets aggregated normally in response to multiple bacterial species, suggesting Btk is redundant in mediating platelet aggregatory responses to bacteria. These results suggest that other Tec family kinases might have a role in platelet FcγRIIa activation to bacteria, which could be affected by iBtk treatment too.

In conclusion, we propose that iBtks impair the FcγRIIa pathway in platelets, reducing platelet-bacteria responses, possibly contributing to the increased risk of infections in observed in CLL.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.