Earlier we have shown the expression of a constitutively active receptor tyrosine kinase Axl in CLL B-cells from previously untreated CLL patients, and that Axl inhibitor TP-0903 induces robust leukemic B-cell death. To explore whether Axl is an effective target in relapsed/refractory CLL patients, we analyzed CLL B-cells obtained from CLL patients on ibrutinib therapy. Ibrutinib-exposed CLL B-cells were treated with increasing doses (0.01- 0.50μM) of a new formulation of high-affinity Axl inhibitor, TP-0903 (tartrate salt), for 24 hours and LD50 doses were determined. Sensitivity of CLL B-cells was compared with known prognostic factors and effect of TP-0903 was also evaluated on Axl signaling pathway in CLL B-cells from this cohort. We detected sustained overexpression of Axl in CLL B-cells from CLL patients on ibrutinib treatment, suggests targeting Axl could be a promising strategy to overcome drug resistance and killing of CLL B-cells in these patients. We found that CLL B-cells from sixty-nine percent of relapsed CLL patients actively on ibrutinib therapy were found to be highly sensitive to TP-0903 with induction of apoptosis at nanomolar doses (≤0.50 μM). TP-0903 treatment effectively inhibited Axl phosphorylation and reduced expression levels of anti-apoptotic proteins (Mcl-1, XIAP) in ibrutinib exposed CLL B-cells. In total, our in vitro preclinical studies showing that TP-0903 is very effective at inducing apoptosis in CLL B-cells obtained from ibrutinib-exposed patients supports further testing of this drug in relapsed/refractory CLL.
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