Interleukin-21 (IL-21) is a member of the IL-2 cytokine family, which mediates proliferation or growth arrest and apoptosis of normal B cells, depending on their activation state. Here we demonstrate that surface IL-21 receptor (R) is expressed at variable levels by chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) B cells freshly isolated from 33 different patients. IL-21R expression was up-regulated following cell stimulation via surface CD40. Therefore, IL-21 effects were more evident in CD40-activated CLL B cells. IL-21 induced an early signaling cascade in CLL B cells, which included JAK-1 and JAK-3 autophosphorylation and tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT-1, STAT-3, and STAT-5. IL-21 signaling failed to stimulate CLL B-cell proliferation, but induced their apoptosis. In addition, IL-21 counteracted the proliferative and antiapoptotic signals delivered by IL-15 to CLL B cells. IL-21-mediated apoptosis involved activation of caspase-8 and caspase-3, cleavage of Bid to its active form t-Bid, and cleavage of PARP and of p27Kip-1. Recent data indicate that CLL B cells require interaction with the microenvironment for their survival and expansion. The present findings thus provide a set of new mechanisms involved in the balance between cell-survival and apoptotic signals in CLL B cells.
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