The clonal expansion of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells requires the interaction with the microenvironment and is under the control of several cytokines. Here, we investigated the effect of IL-15 and IL-21, which are closely related to IL-2 and share the usage of the common γ chain and of its JAK3-associated pathway. We found remarkable differences in the signal transduction pathways activated by these cytokines, which determined different responses in CLL cells. IL-15 caused cell proliferation and prevented apoptosis induced by surface IgM cross-linking. These effects were more evident in cells stimulated via surface CD40, which exhibited increased cell expression of IL-15Rα chain and, in some of the cases, also of IL-2Rβ. IL-21 failed to induce CLL cell proliferation and instead promoted apoptosis. Following cell exposure to IL-15, phosphorylation of STAT5 was predominantly observed, whereas, following stimulation with IL-21, there was predominant STAT1 and STAT3 activation. Moreover, IL-15 but not IL-21 caused an increased phosphorylation of Shc and ERK1/2. Pharmacological inhibition of JAK3 or of MEK, which phosphorylates ERK1/2, efficiently blocked IL-15-induced CLL cell proliferation and the antiapoptotic effect of this cytokine. The knowledge of the signaling pathways regulating CLL cell survival and proliferation may provide new molecular targets for therapeutic intervention.
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