Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells cycle between lymph node (LN) and peripheral blood (PB) and display major shifts in Bcl-2 family members between those compartments. Specifically, Bcl-XL and Mcl-1, which are not targeted by the Bcl-2 inhibitor venetoclax, are increased in the LN. Because ibrutinib forces CLL cells out of the LN, we hypothesized that ibrutinib may thereby affect expression of Bcl-XL and Mcl-1 and sensitize CLL cells to venetoclax. We investigated expression of Bcl-2 family members in patients under ibrutinib or venetoclax treatment, combined with dissecting functional interactions of Bcl-2 family members, in an in vitro model of venetoclax resistance. In the PB, recent LN emigrants had higher Bcl-XL and Mcl-1 expression than did cells immigrating back to the LN. Under ibrutinib treatment, this distinction collapsed; significantly, the pretreatment profile reappeared in patients who relapsed on ibrutinib. However, in response to venetoclax, Bcl-2 members displayed an early increase, underlining the different modes of action of these 2 drugs. Profiling by BH3 mimetics was performed in CLL cells fully resistant to venetoclax due to CD40-mediated induction of Bcl-XL, Mcl-1, and Bfl-1. Several dual or triple combinations of BH3 mimetics were highly synergistic in restoring killing of CLL cells. Lastly, we demonstrated that proapoptotic Bim interacts with antiapoptotic Bcl-2 members in a sequential manner: Bcl-2 > Bcl-XL > Mcl-1 > Bfl-1. Combined, the data indicate that Bcl-XL is more important in venetoclax resistance than is Mcl-1 and provide biological rationale for potential synergy between ibrutinib and venetoclax.
© 2020 by The American Society of Hematology.