Ibrutinib and venetoclax target distinct subpopulations of CLL cells: implication for residual disease eradication

Pin Lu, Shengchun Wang, Carrie A. Franzen, Girish Venkataraman, Rebecca McClure, Lei Li, Wenjun Wu, Nifang Niu, Madina Sukhanova, Jianming Pei, Donald A. Baldwin, Reza Nejati, Mariusz A. Wasik, Nadia Khan, Yifan Tu, Juehua Gao, Yihua Chen, Shuo Ma, Richard A. Larson, Y. Lynn Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Ibrutinib inhibits Bruton tyrosine kinase while venetoclax is a specific inhibitor of the anti-apoptotic protein BCL2. Both drugs are highly effective as monotherapy against chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and clinical trials using the combination therapy have produced remarkable results in terms of rate of complete remission and frequency of undetectable minimal residual disease. However, the laboratory rationale behind the success of the drug combination is still lacking. A better understanding of how these two drugs synergize would eventually help develop other rational combination strategies. Using an ex vivo model that promotes CLL proliferation, we show that modeled ibrutinib proliferative responses, but not viability responses, correlate well with patients’ actual clinical responses. Importantly, we demonstrate for the first time that ibrutinib and venetoclax act on distinct CLL subpopulations that have different proliferative capacities. While the dividing subpopulation of CLL responds to ibrutinib, the resting subpopulation preferentially responds to venetoclax. The combination of these targeted therapies effectively reduced both the resting and dividing subpopulations in most cases. Our laboratory findings help explain several clinical observations and contribute to the understanding of tumor dynamics. Additionally, our proliferation model may be used to identify novel drug combinations with the potential of eradicating residual disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number39
JournalBlood cancer journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology
  • Oncology


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