Sialylation is the terminal addition of sialic acid to underlying glycans and plays a prominent role in cell adhesion and immune regulation. Sialylated structures found on adhesion molecules, such as CD49d, mediate the interactions between cancer cells and the microenvironment, facilitating metastatic seeding in target organs. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a clonal B-cell malignancy characterized by the accumulation of CD5- positive B cells in the peripheral blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes. CLL cells proliferate mainly in the lymph node “proliferation centers”, where the microenvironment provides pro-survival signals. Thus, migration and homing into these protective niches play a crucial role in CLL biology. In recent years, therapeutic strategies aiming at inducing the egress of CLL cells from the lymph nodes and bone marrow into the circulation have been highly successful. In this study, the sialylation status of 79 untreated and 24 ibrutinibtreated CLL patients was characterized by flow cytometry. Moreover, the effect of sialic acid removal on migration was tested by a transwell assay. Finally, we examined the sialylation status of CD49d by Western blot analysis. We found that CLL cells are highly sialylated, particularly those characterized by an “activated” immune phenotype. Notably, sialylation regulates CLL migration through the post-translational modification of CD49d. Finally, we showed that therapeutic agents that induce CLL mobilization from their protective niches such as ibrutinib, modulate the levels of sialic acids. We propose that sialylation is an important regulator of CLL trafficking and may represent a novel target to further improve CLL therapy.
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