Although ibrutinib is highly effective in Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia (WM), no complete remissions in WM patients treated with ibrutinib have been reported to date. Moreover, ibrutinib-resistant disease is being steadily reported and is associated with dismal clinical outcome (overall survival of 2.9-3.1 months). To understand mechanisms of ibrutinib resistance in WM, we established ibrutinib-resistant in vitro models using validated WM cell lines. Characterization of these models revealed the absence of BTK C481S and CXCR4 WHIM-like mutations. BTK-mediated signaling was found to be highly attenuated accompanied by a shift in PI3K/AKT and apoptosis regulation-associated genes/proteins. Cytotoxicity studies using the AKT inhibitor, MK2206±ibrutinib, and the Bcl-2-specific inhibitor, venetoclax±ibrutinib, demonstrated synergistic loss of cell viability when either MK22016 or venetoclax were used in combination with ibrutinib. Our findings demonstrate that induction of ibrutinib resistance in WM cells can arise independent of BTK C481S and CXCR4 WHIM-like mutations and sustained pressure from ibrutinib appears to activate compensatory AKT signaling as well as reshuffling of Bcl-2 family proteins for maintenance of cell survival. Combination treatment demonstrated greater (and synergistic) antitumor effect and provides rationale for development of therapeutic strategies encompassing venetoclax+ibrutinib or PI3K/AKT inhibitors+ibrutinib in ibrutinib-resistant WM.
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