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Cell Death Dis. 2012 Aug 16;3:e372. doi: 10.1038/cddis.2012.102.

Glucocorticoid resistance in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is associated with a failure of upregulated Bim/Bcl-2 complexes to activate Bax and Bak.

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Department of Molecular and Clinical Cancer Medicine, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK.


Glucocorticoids (GCs) represent an important component of modern treatment regimens for fludarabine-refractory or TP53-defective chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). However, GC therapy is not effective in all patients. The molecular mechanisms responsible for GC-induced apoptosis and resistance were therefore investigated in primary malignant cells obtained from a cohort of 46 patients with CLL. Dexamethasone-induced apoptosis was unaffected by p53 dysfunction and more pronounced in cases with unmutated IGHV genes. Cross-resistance was observed between dexamethasone and other GCs but not fludarabine, indicating non-identical resistance mechanisms. GC treatment resulted in the upregulation of Bim mRNA and protein, but to comparable levels in both GC-resistant and sensitive cells. Pre-incubation with Bim siRNAs reduced GC-induced upregulation of Bim protein and conferred resistance to GC-induced apoptosis in previously GC-sensitive cells. GC-induced upregulation of Bim was associated with the activation of Bax and Bak in GC-sensitive but not -resistant CLL samples. Co-immunoprecipitation experiments showed that Bim does not interact directly with Bax or Bak, but is almost exclusively bound to Bcl-2 regardless of GC treatment. Taken together, these findings suggest that the GC-induced killing of CLL cells results from the indirect activation of Bax and Bak by upregulated Bim/Bcl-2 complexes, and that GC resistance results from the failure of such activation to occur.

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