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Blood. 2002 Feb 15;99(4):1314-9.

The chimeric anti-CD20 antibody rituximab induces apoptosis in B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells through a p38 mitogen activated protein-kinase-dependent mechanism.

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Leukemia Laboratory, Department of Hematology, The Finsen Centre, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Antibodies against CD20 can activate complement and induce antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC) in B lymphocytes. In B-cell lines, such antibodies also induce apoptosis. In this study, the expression and function of CD20 on B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) cells were analyzed. Flow cytometric analysis demonstrated that B-CLL cells express CD20 with a fluorescence intensity that is significantly weaker than that of normal CD5(+) and CD5(-) B cells and that of malignant CD5(-) low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma cells. A small population of cells from healthy donors that have an expression pattern of CD5 and CD20 identical to that of B-CLL cells were identified, and this population was confirmed to be of T lineage, not B lineage. Culture of freshly isolated B-CLL cells in the presence of the chimeric anti-CD20 antibody rituximab and a cross-linking F(ab)(2) fragment, resulted in dose- and time-dependent induction of apoptosis. The induction of apoptosis occurred under conditions in which the influence of complement activation and ADCC was negligible. Cross-linking of rituximab induced strong and sustained phosphorylation of the 3 mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinases c-Jun NH2-terminal protein kinase, extracellular signal-regulated kinase, and p38. Introduction of the p38 inhibitor SB203580 into the system completely blocked signaling downstream of p38, as evidenced by the absence of MAPKAP K2 activity, and significantly reduced the degree of anti-CD20-induced apoptosis. These results demonstrate that cross-linking of rituximab bound to CD20 on freshly isolated B-CLL cells induces apoptosis through a signaling pathway that is dependent on p38 MAP-kinase activation.

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