Regulation of Bcl-XL by non-canonical NF-κB in the context of CD40-induced drug resistance in CLL

Haselager, Marco and Thijssen, Rachel and West, Christopher and Young, Louise and Van Kampen, Roel and Willmore, Elaine and Mackay, Simon and Kater, Arnon and Eldering, Eric (2021) Regulation of Bcl-XL by non-canonical NF-κB in the context of CD40-induced drug resistance in CLL. Cell Death and Differentiation, 28 (5). pp. 1658-1668. ISSN 1350-9047 (

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In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the lymph node (LN) microenvironment delivers critical survival signals by inducing the expression of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 members Bcl-XL, Bfl-1, and Mcl-1, resulting in apoptosis blockade. We determined previously that resistance against various drugs, among which is the clinically applied BH3 mimetic venetoclax, is dominated by upregulation of the anti-apoptotic regulator Bcl-XL. Direct clinical targeting of Bcl-XL by, e.g., Navitoclax is however not desirable due to induction of thrombocytopenia. Since the actual regulation of Bcl-XL in CLL in the context of the LN microenvironment is not well elucidated, we investigated various candidate LN signals to drive Bcl-XL expression. We found a dominance for NF-κB signaling upon CD40 stimulation, which results in activation of both the canonical and non-canonical NF-κB signaling pathways. We demonstrate that expression of Bcl-XL is first induced by the canonical NF-κB pathway, and subsequently boosted and continued via non-canonical NF-κB signaling through stabilization of NIK. NF-κB subunits p65 and p52 can both bind to the Bcl-XL promoter and activate transcription upon CD40 stimulation. Moreover, canonical NF-κB signaling was correlated with Bfl-1 expression, whereas Mcl-1 in contrast, was not transcriptionally regulated by NF-κB. Finally, we applied a novel compound targeting NIK to selectively inhibit the non-canonical NF-κB pathway and showed that venetoclax-resistant CLL cells were sensitized to venetoclax. In conclusion, protective signals from the CLL microenvironment can be tipped towards apoptosis sensitivity by interfering with non-canonical NF-κB signaling.