BTK and PI3K inhibitors are among the drugs approved for the treatment of patients with lymphoid neoplasms. Although active, their ability to lead to long-lasting complete remission is rather limited, especially in the lymphoma setting. This indicates that tumor cells often develop resistance to the drugs. We started from a marginal zone lymphoma cell line, Karpas-1718, kept under prolonged exposure to the PI3Kδ inhibitor idelalisib until acquisition of resistance, or with no drug. Cells underwent transcriptome, miRNA and methylation profiling, whole-exome sequencing, and pharmacologic screening, which led to the identification of the overexpression of ERBB4 and its ligands HBEGF and NRG2 in the resistant cells. Cellular and genetic experiments demonstrated the involvement of this axis in blocking the antitumor activity of various BTK/PI3K inhibitors, currently used in the clinical setting. Addition of recombinant HBEGF induced resistance to BTK/PI3K inhibitors in parental cells and in additional lymphoma models. Combination with the ERBB inhibitor lapatinib was beneficial in resistant cells and in other lymphoma models already expressing the identified resistance factors. An epigenetic reprogramming sustained the expression of the resistance-related factors, and pretreatment with demethylating agents or EZH2 inhibitors overcame the resistance. Resistance factors were also shown to be expressed in clinical specimens. In conclusion, we showed that the overexpression of ERBB4 and its ligands represents a novel mechanism of resistance for lymphoma cells to bypass the antitumor activity of BTK and PI3K inhibitors and that targeted pharmacologic interventions can restore sensitivity to the small molecules.

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