Neurotensin receptor type 2 protects B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells from apoptosis
B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) cells are resistant to apoptosis, and consequently accumulate to the detriment of normal B cells and patient immunity. Because current therapies fail to eradicate these apoptosis-resistant cells, it is essential to identify alternative survival pathways as novel targets for anticancer therapies. Overexpression of cell-surface G protein-coupled receptors drives cell transformation, and thus plays a critical role in malignancies. In this study, we identified neurotensin receptor 2 (NTSR2) as an essential driver of apoptosis resistance in B-CLL. NTSR2 was highly expressed in B-CLL cells, whereas expression of its natural ligand, neurotensin (NTS), was minimal in both B-CLL cells and patient plasma. Surprisingly, NTSR2 remained in a constitutively active phosphorylated state, caused not by a mutation-induced gain-of-function but rather by an interaction with the oncogenic tyrosine kinase receptor TrkB. Functional and biochemical characterization revealed that the NTSR2-TrkB interaction acts as a conditional oncogenic driver requiring the TrkB ligand brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which unlike NTS is highly expressed in B-CLL cells. Together, NTSR2, TrkB and BDNF induce autocrine and/or paracrine survival pathways that are independent of mutation status and indolent or progressive disease course. The NTSR2-TrkB interaction activates survival signaling pathways, including the Src and AKT kinase pathways, as well as expression of the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL. When NTSR2 was downregulated, TrkB failed to protect B-CLL cells from a drastic decrease in viability via typical apoptotic cell death, reflected by DNA fragmentation and Annexin V presentation. Together, our findings demonstrate that the NTSR2-TrkB interaction plays a crucial role in B-CLL cell survival, suggesting that inhibition of NTSR2 represents a promising targeted strategy for treating B-CLL malignancy.