A tumor microenvironment model of chronic lymphocytic leukemia enables drug sensitivity testing to guide precision medicine

Cell Death Discov. 2023 Apr 13;9(1):125. doi: 10.1038/s41420-023-01426-w.


The microenvironment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells in lymph nodes, spleen, and bone marrow provides survival, proliferation, and drug resistance signals. Therapies need to be effective in these compartments, and pre-clinical models of CLL that are used to test drug sensitivity must mimic the tumor microenvironment to reflect clinical responses. Ex vivo models have been developed that capture individual or multiple aspects of the CLL microenvironment, but they are not necessarily compatible with high-throughput drug screens. Here, we report on a model that has reasonable associated costs, can be handled in a regularly equipped cell lab, and is compatible with ex vivo functional assays including drug sensitivity screens. The CLL cells are cultured with fibroblasts that express the ligands APRIL, BAFF and CD40L for 24 h. The transient co-culture was shown to support survival of primary CLL cells for at least 13 days, and mimic in vivo drug resistance signals. Ex vivo sensitivity and resistance to the Bcl-2 antagonist venetoclax correlated with in vivo responses. The assay was used to identify treatment vulnerabilities and guide precision medicine for a patient with relapsed CLL. Taken together, the presented CLL microenvironment model enables clinical implementation of functional precision medicine in CLL.