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Blood. 2008 May 1;111(9):4723-30. doi: 10.1182/blood-2007-07-099531. Epub 2008 Jan 8.

IL-21 mediates apoptosis through up-regulation of the BH3 family member BIM and enhances both direct and antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity in primary chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells in vitro.

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  • 1Division of Hematology-Oncology, Department of Medicine, The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA.


Interleukin-21 (IL-21) is a recently identified gamma-chain receptor cytokine family member that promotes B-cell apoptosis as well as activation of innate immune system. Based on this, we hypothesized that IL-21 might enhance the apoptosis induced by fludarabine and rituximab and also play a role in augmenting immune-mediated clearance of the chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells. Our studies demonstrate that the majority of CLL patients have surface IL-21 receptor-alpha, and its expression correlates with apoptosis, tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT1, and up-regulation of the proapoptotic BH3 domain protein BIM. IL-21-induced BIM up-regulation is critical for apoptosis because inhibition of BIM expression using small interfering RNA prevented IL-21-induced apoptosis. IL-21 treatment of CLL cells but not normal T cells with fludarabine or rituximab additively enhanced the direct cytotoxic effect of these therapies. In addition to its proapoptotic effect, IL-21 promoted STAT1 and STAT5 phosphorylation in natural killer cells with concurrent enhanced antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity against rituximab-coated CLL cells in vitro. These data provide justification for combination studies of IL-21 with fludarabine and rituximab in CLL and suggest that BIM up-regulation might serve as relevant pharmacodynamic end point to measure biologic effect of this cytokine in vivo.

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