Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Biomedical Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Peng Huang

Committee Member

Jan A Burger

Committee Member

Paul J Chiao

Committee Member

Michael J Keating

Committee Member

Bradley W McIntyre

Committee Member

Peng Huang


Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is the most common adult leukemia in the western countries. The interaction between CLL cells and the bone marrow stromal environment is thought to play a major role in promoting the leukemia cell survival and drug resistance. My dissertation works proved a novel biochemical mechanism by which the bone marrow stromal cells exert a profound influence on the redox status of primary CLL cells and enhance their ability to sustain oxidative stress and drug treatment. Fresh leukemia cells isolated from the peripheral blood of CLL patients exhibited two major redox alterations when they were cultured alone: a significant decrease in cellular glutathione (GSH) and an increase in basal ROS levels. However, when cultured in the presence of bone marrow stromal cells, CLL cells restored their redox balance with an increased synthesis of GSH, a decrease in spontaneous apoptosis, and an improved cell survival. Further study showed that CLL cells were under intrinsic ROS stress and highly dependent on GSH for survival, and that the bone marrow stromal cells promoted GSH synthesis in CLL cells through a novel biochemical mechanism. Cysteine is a limiting substrate for GSH synthesis and is chemically unstable. Cells normally obtain cysteine by uptaking the more stable and abundant precursor cystine from the tissue environment and convert it to cysteine intracellularly. I showed that CLL cells had limited ability to take up extracellular cystine for GSH synthesis due to their low expression of the transporter Xc-, but had normal ability to uptake cysteine. In the co-culture system, the bone marrow stromal cells effectively took up cystine and reduced it to cysteine for secretion into the tissue microenvironment to be taken up by CLL cells for GSH synthesis. The elevated GSH in CLL cells in the presence of bone marrow stromal cells significantly protected the leukemia cells from stress-induced apoptosis, and rendered them resistant to standard therapeutic agents such as fludarabine and oxaliplatin. Importantly, disabling of this protective mechanism by depletion of cellular GSH using a pharmacological approach potently sensitized CLL cells to drug treatment, and effectively enhanced the cytotoxic action of fludarabine and oxaliplatin against CLL in the presence of stromal cells. This study reveals a key biochemical mechanism of leukemia-stromal cells interaction, and identifies a new therapeutic strategy to overcome drug resistance in vivo.


Glutathione, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, microenvironment, drug resistance