Our study in CLL delineated a unique mechanism of how bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs), may influence CLL B-cell signaling and drug resistance via modifying β-catenin and Axl status in leukemic cells. Purified primary CLL B-cells (n= 31) from previously untreated CLL patients were cultured alone or co-cultured with primary BMSCs from either normal individuals (n=23) or CLL patients (n=12) at a 50:1 ratio in AIMV medium. After 48 hours, separated CLL B-cells or BMSCs were examined by immunoprecipitation/Western blot analyses and real-time PCRs. We observed significant increases in expression of Axl at both mRNA and protein levels in CLL B-cells co-cultured with BMSCs compared to CLL B-cells cultured alone. We also detected significantly increased expression of β-catenin at the protein level in co-cultured CLL B-cells. But, we did not see any significant change in β-catenin or Axl expression in BMSCs co-cultured with CLL B-cells. The CLL B-cells from co-culture had an upregulation in downstream P-ERK-1/2 but no change in P-AKT(Ser473). High nuclear active-β-catenin and P-ERK-1/2 levels were also detected in co-cultured CLL B-cells. ERK associates with and inactivates GSK-3β resulting in the up-regulation of β-catenin. We next checked for P-GSK-3β(Ser9) in co-cultured CLL B-cells. Upregulation in P-GSK-3β(Ser9) suggests inactivation of GSK-3β and β-catenin accumulation in co-cultured CLL B-cells. Additionally, we determined the phosphorylation status of Axl in CLL B-cells in co-culture compared with cultured alone. There was no change either at Y702 or total tyrosine phosphorylation in CLL B cells. Thus, we assume that the role of Axl in co-cultured leukemic B-cells is independent of its kinase activity. Next we determined the effect of Axl inhibitor TP-0903 on CLL B-cells in co-culture vs cultured alone. Interestingly, both Axl and β-catenin expression levels were further upregulated in CLL B-cells exposed to TP-0903 compared to CLL B-cells without TP-0903 in co-culture, indicating possible roles for both Axl and β-catenin in stromal mediated CLL B-cell drug resistance. However, TP-0903 decreased P-Axl(Y702) as well as an Axl downstream mediator, P-Akt(S473) and reduced Mcl-1 expression in CLL B-cells even in presence of BMSCs. This was associated with induction of cell death and overrode BMSC mediated protection. Treatments of fludarabine or chlorambucil also led to increase in expressions of both β-catenin and Axl in co-cultured CLL B-cells. Moreover, inhibition of P-ERK-1/2 with inhibitor PD98059 in CLL B-cells cultured with BMSCs inhibited β-catenin as well as Axl expression levels. Here we show that stroma mediated increased expression in both β-catenin and Axl likely contribute to the survival and drug resistance of B-cells from patients with CLL. Understanding their role in drug metabolism is underway.

Citation Format: Sutapa Sinha, Charla Secreto, Justin Boysen, Steven L. Warner, David J. Bearss, Asish Ghosh, Neil E. Kay. Enhanced expression of β-catenin and Axl receptor tyrosine kinase in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) B-cells with co-culture on marrow stromal cells: Implications for drug resistance [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2018; 2018 Apr 14-18; Chicago, IL. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2018;78(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 2144.