Our interest in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) derives primarily from the exploitation of human diseases as strategic models for defining the in vivo biological roles of CD38. Using this model, we showed that CD38 triggers robust proliferation/survival signals modulated through the interactions with the CD31 ligand expressed by nurse-like cells and by the stromal/endothelial components. By analyzing a cohort of 56 patients with clinically and molecularly characterized CLL, we show that (1) patients with CD38(+)/ZAP-70(+) are characterized by enhanced migration toward Stromal derived factor-1alpha (SDF-1alpha)/CXCL12; (2) CD38 ligation leads to tyrosine phosphorylation of ZAP-70, showing that these markers are functionally linked; (3) ZAP-70 represents a limiting factor for the CD38 pathway in the CLL context, as shown by studying CD38-mediated signal transduction in 26 molecularly characterized patients; and (4) the CLL subgroup of patients defined on the basis of migratory potential is marked by a specific genetic signature, with a significant number of differentially expressed genes being involved in cell-cell interactions and movement. Altogether, the results of this work provide biological evidence for why the combined analysis of CD38 and ZAP-70 expression as determined in several clinical trials results in more dependable identification of patients with CLL who have aggressive disease.
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