B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) results from accumulation of leukemic cells that are subject to iterative re-activation cycles and clonal expansion in lymphoid tissues. The effects of the well-tolerated alkaloid Berberine (BRB), used for treating metabolic disorders, were studied on ex-vivo leukemic cells activated in vitro by microenvironment stimuli. BRB decreased expression of survival/proliferation-associated molecules (e.g. Mcl-1/Bcl-xL) and inhibited stimulation-induced cell cycle entry, irrespective of TP53 alterations or chromosomal abnormalities. CLL cells rely on oxidative phosphorylation for their bioenergetics, particularly during the activation process. In this context, BRB triggered mitochondrial dysfunction and aberrant cellular energetic metabolism. Decreased ATP production and NADH recycling, associated with mitochondrial uncoupling, were not compensated by increased lactic fermentation. Antioxidant defenses were affected and could not correct the altered intracellular redox homeostasis. The data thus indicated that the cytotoxic/cytostatic action of BRB at 10–30 μM might be mediated, at least in part, by BRB-induced impairment of oxidative phosphorylation and the associated increment of oxidative damage, with consequent inhibition of cell activation and eventual cell death. Bioenergetics and cell survival were instead unaffected in normal B lymphocytes at the same BRB concentrations. Interestingly, BRB lowered the apoptotic threshold of ABT-199/Venetoclax, a promising BH3-mimetic whose cytotoxic activity is counteracted by high Mcl-1/Bcl-xL expression and increased mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. Our results indicate that, while CLL cells are in the process of building their survival and cycling armamentarium, the presence of BRB affects this process.
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