Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a frequent lymphoproliferative disorder of B cells. Although inhibitors targeting signal proteins involved in B cell antigen receptor (BCR) signaling constitute an important part of the current therapeutic protocols for CLL patients, the exact role of BCR signaling, as compared to genetic aberration, in the development and progression of CLL is controversial.
To investigate whether BCR expression per se is pivotal for the development and maintenance of CLL B cells, we used the TCL1 mouse model. By ablating the BCR in CLL cells from TCL1 transgenic mice, we show that CLL cells cannot survive without BCR signaling and are lost within eight weeks in diseased mice.
Furthermore, we tested whether mutations augmenting B cell signaling influence the course of CLL development and its severity. The Phosphatidylinositol-3-kinase (PI3K) signaling pathway is an integral part of the BCR signaling machinery and its activity is indispensable for B cell survival. It is negatively regulated by the lipid phosphatase PTEN, whose loss mimics PI3K pathway activation. Herein, we show that PTEN has a key regulatory function in the development of CLL, as deletion of the Pten gene resulted in greatly accelerated onset of the disease. By contrast, deletion of the gene TP53, which encodes the tumor suppressor p53 and is highly mutated in CLL, did not accelerate disease development, confirming that development of CLL was specifically triggered by augmented PI3K activity through loss of PTEN and suggesting that CLL driver consequences most likely affect BCR signaling. Moreover, we could show that in human CLL patient samples, 64% and 81% of CLL patients with a mutated and unmutated IgH VH, respectively, show downregulated PTEN protein expression in CLL B cells if compared to healthy donor B cells. Importantly, we found that B cells derived from CLL patients had higher expression levels of the miRNA-21 and miRNA-29, which suppresses PTEN translation, compared to healthy donors. The high levels of miRNA-29 might be induced by increased PAX5 expression of the B-CLL cells. We hypothesize that downregulation of PTEN by increased expression levels of miR-21, PAX5 and miR-29 could be a novel mechanism of CLL tumorigenesis that is not established yet.
Together, our study demonstrates the pivotal role for BCR signaling in CLL development and deepens our understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the genesis of CLL and for the development of new treatment strategies.
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