Background: Ibrutinib has been shown to have immunomodulatory effects by inhibiting Bruton's tyrosine kinase (BTK) and IL-2-inducible T cell kinase (ITK). The relative importance of inhibiting these 2 kinases has not been examined despite its relevance to immune-based therapies.
Methods: Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients on clinical trials of ibrutinib (BTK/ITK inhibitor; n = 19) or acalabrutinib (selective BTK inhibitor; n = 13) were collected serially. T cell phenotype, immune function, and CLL cell immunosuppressive capacity were evaluated.
Results: Ibrutinib markedly increased CD4+ and CD8+ T cell numbers in CLL patients. This effect was more prominent in effector/effector memory subsets and was not observed with acalabrutinib. Ex vivo studies demonstrated that this may be due to diminished activation-induced cell death through ITK inhibition. PD-1 and CTLA-4 expression was significantly markedly reduced in T cells by both agents. While the number of Treg cells remained unchanged, the ratio of these to conventional CD4+ T cells was reduced with ibrutinib, but not acalabrutinib. Both agents reduced expression of the immunosuppressive molecules CD200 and BTLA as well as IL-10 production by CLL cells.
Conclusions: Ibrutinib treatment increased the in vivo persistence of activated T cells, decreased the Treg/CD4+ T cell ratio, and diminished the immune-suppressive properties of CLL cells through BTK-dependent and -independent mechanisms. These features provide a strong rationale for combination immunotherapy approaches with ibrutinib in CLL and other cancers.
Funding: The National Cancer Institute.