In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), increasing knowledge of the biology of the tumor cells has led to transformative improvements in our capacity to assess and treat patients. The dependence of tumor cells on surface immunoglobulin (Ig) receptor signaling, on survival pathways, and on accessory cells within the microenvironment has led to a successful double-barrelled attack with designer drugs. Studies have revealed that CLL should be classified based on the mutational status of the expressed IGHV sequences into two diseases, either unmutated (U) or mutated (M)-CLL, each with a distinctive cellular origin, biology, epigenetics/genetics, and clinical behavior. The origin of U-CLL lies among the natural antibody repertoire and dominance of IGHV1-69 reveals a superantigenic driver. In both U-CLL and M-CLL, a calibrated stimulation of tumor cells by self-antigens apparently generates a dynamic reiterative cycle as cells, protected from apoptosis, transit between blood and tissue sites. But there are differences in outcome, with the balance between proliferation and anergy favoring anergy in M-CLL. Responses are modulated by an array of microenvironmental interactions. Availability of T-cell help is a likely determinant of cell fate, the dependency on which varies between U-CLL and M-CLL, reflecting the different cells of origin, and affecting clinical behavior. Despite such advances, cell-escape strategies, Richter transformation, and immunosuppression remain as challenges, which only may be met by continued research into the biology of CLL.
Freda Kathryn Stevenson, Francesco Forconi, Thomas J Kipps