Patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) have increased risk of severe infections. Although adaptive immune dysfunction is well described, clinical tools for identifying patients at risk are lacking, warranting investigation of additional immune components. In contrast to chemotherapy, targeted agents could spare or even improve innate immune function. Therefore, we investigated innate immune phenotypes and function in patients with CLL before and during targeted treatment.

Experimental Design:

Baseline and consecutive blood samples were collected from patients with CLL treated with acalabrutinib (n = 17) or ibrutinib+venetoclax (n = 18) in clinical trials. Innate immune function was assessed by TruCulture, a whole-blood ligand-stimulation assay quantifying cytokine release in response to standardized stimuli. Innate immune phenotypes were characterized by flow cytometry. As a proxy for infections, we mapped antimicrobial use before and during treatment.


At baseline, patients with CLL displayed impaired stimulated cytokine responses to the endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS) along with deactivated monocytes, enrichment of myeloid-derived suppressor cells and metamyelocytes, and elevated (unstimulated) proinflammatory cytokines. Two/three cycles of acalabrutinib or ibrutinib normalized LPS-stimulated responses, in parallel with decreased duration of infections. Innate immune profiles and elevated proinflammatory cytokines further normalized during longer-term acalabrutinib or ibrutinib+venetoclax, paralleled by decreased infection frequency.


Innate immune impairment and infection susceptibility in patients with CLL were restored in parallel during targeted therapy. Thus, targeted treatment may reduce the risk of infections in CLL, as currently under investigation in the PreVent-ACaLL phase 2 trial of acalabrutinib+venetoclax for high-risk CLL (NCT03868722).

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