Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is the most prevalent human leukemia and is characterized by the progressive accumulation of long-lived malignant B cells. Here we show that human B-CLL cells selectively express high levels of Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) mRNA and proteins. Treating B-CLL cells with TLR9 agonists, type B CpG oligodeoxynucleotides (CpG-B ODNs), induces significant morphologic and phenotypic activation, altered cytokine production, reversal of signal transducer, and activator of transcription 1 (STAT1) phosphorylation state, followed by profound apoptosis of B-CLL cells that is CpG-B ODN treatment time- and dose-dependent. TLR9-CpG ODN ligation-induced apoptosis of B-CLL cells is confirmed by viable cell counts, annexin V/propidium iodide and tetramethylrhodamine ethylester staining, Western blots of the activation, and cleaved caspases and poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase. Triggering TLR9 by CpG-B ODN leads to nuclear factor-κB-dependent production of autocrine interleukin-10, which activates JAK/STAT pathway-dependent tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT1 proteins and thereby provokes an apoptosis pathway in B-CLL cells. Treating B-CLL cells in vitro or in vivo with CpG-B ODN reduces the number of leukemia cells that engraft in NOD-scid mice. These findings provide new understanding of CpG ODN-mediated antitumor effects and support for the development of TLR9-targeted therapy for human CLL.
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