In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) signals from the B cell receptor (BCR) play a major role in disease development and progression. In this light, new therapies that specifically target signaling molecules downstream of the BCR continue to be developed. While first studies on the selective small molecule inhibitor of Bruton's tyrosine kinase (Btk), Ibrutinib (PCI-32765), demonstrated that Btk inhibition sensitizes CLL cells to apoptosis and alters their migratory behavior, these studies however did not address whether Btk-mediated signaling is involved in the process of CLL leukemogenesis. To investigate the requirement of Btk signaling for CLL development, we modulated Btk expression in the IgH.ETμ CLL mouse model, which is based on sporadic expression of the simian oncovirus SV40 T-antigen in mature B cells. To this end, we crossed IgH.ETμ mice on a Btk-deficient background or introduced a human Btk transgene (CD19-hBtk). Here we show that Btk deficiency fully abrogates CLL formation in IgH.ETμ mice, and that leukemias formed in Btk haplo-insufficient mice selectively expressed the wild-type Btk allele on their active X chromosome. Conversely, Btk overexpression accelerated CLL onset, increased mortality, and was associated with selection of non-stereotypical BCRs into CLL clones. Taken together, these data show that Btk expression represents an absolute prerequisite for CLL development and that Btk mediated signaling enhances leukemogenesis in mice. We therefore conclude that in CLL Btk expression levels set the threshold for malignant transformation.
Keywords: B cell receptor signaling; Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL); bruton’s tyrosine kinase (Btk).