Although small molecule inhibitors of B-cell receptor-associated kinases have revolutionized therapy in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), responses are incomplete. Pro-survival signaling emanating from the microenvironment may foster therapeutic resistance of the malignant B cells resident in the protective lymphoid niches. B-cell activating factor (BAFF) is critical to the survival of both healthy and neoplastic B cells. However, the pro-survival pathways triggered by BAFF have not been fully characterized. Here we show that BAFF elicited resistance to spontaneous and drug-induced apoptosis in stromal co-cultures, induced activation of both canonical and non-canonical NFκB signaling pathways, and triggered B-cell receptor signaling in CLL cells, independently of IGHV mutational status. SYK, a proximal kinase in the B-cell receptor signaling cascade, acted via STAT3 to bolster transcription of the anti-apoptotic protein Mcl-1, thereby contributing to apoptosis resistance in BAFF-stimulated cells. SYK inhibitor entospletinib downregulated Mcl-1, abrogating BAFF-mediated cell survival. BAFF-B-cell receptor crosstalk in neoplastic B cells was mediated by SYK interaction with TRAF2/TRAF3 complex. Thus, SYK inhibition is a promising therapeutic strategy uniquely poised to antagonize crosstalk between BAFF and B-cell receptor, thereby disrupting the pro-survival microenvironment signaling in chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
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