TLR9 expression in chronic lymphocytic leukemia identifies a promigratory subpopulation and novel therapeutic target

Emma Kennedy, Eve Coulter, Emma Halliwell, Nuria Profitos-Peleja, Elisabeth Walsby, Barnaby Clark, Elizabeth H. Phillips, Thomas A. Burley, Simon Mitchell, Stephen Devereux, Christopher D. Fegan, Christopher I. Jones, Rosalynd Johnston, Tim Chevassut, Ralph Schulz, Martina Seiffert, Angelo Agathanggelou, Ceri Oldreive, Nicholas Davies, Tatjana StankovicTriantafillos Liloglou, Chris Pepper, Andrea G.S. Pepper*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) remains incurable despite B-cell receptor–targeted inhibitors revolutionizing treatment. This suggests that other signaling molecules are involved in disease escape mechanisms and resistance. Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) is a promising candidate that is activated by unmethylated cytosine guanine dinucleotide–DNA. Here, we show that plasma from patients with CLL contains significantly more unmethylated DNA than plasma from healthy control subjects (P <.0001) and that cell-free DNA levels correlate with the prognostic markers CD38, β2-microglobulin, and lymphocyte doubling time. Furthermore, elevated cell-free DNA was associated with shorter time to first treatment (hazard ratio, 4.0; P =.003). We also show that TLR9 expression was associated with in vitro CLL cell migration (P <.001), and intracellular endosomal TLR9 strongly correlated with aberrant surface expression (sTLR9; r = 0.9). In addition, lymph node–derived CLL cells exhibited increased sTLR9 (P =.016), and RNA-sequencing of paired sTLR9hi and sTLR9lo CLL cells revealed differential transcription of genes involved in TLR signaling, adhesion, motility, and inflammation in sTLR9hi cells. Mechanistically, a TLR9 agonist, ODN2006, promoted CLL cell migration (P <.001) that was mediated by p65 NF-κB and STAT3 transcription factor activation. Importantly, autologous plasma induced the same effects, which were reversed by a TLR9 antagonist. Furthermore, high TLR9 expression promoted engraftment and rapid disease progression in a NOD/Shi-scid/IL-2Rγnull mouse xenograft model. Finally, we showed that dual targeting of TLR9 and Bruton's tyrosine kinase (BTK) was strongly synergistic (median combination index, 0.2 at half maximal effective dose), which highlights the distinct role for TLR9 signaling in CLL and the potential for combined targeting of TLR9 and BTK as a more effective treatment strategy in this incurable disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3064-3078
Number of pages15
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2021


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