Exosomes released by chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells induce the transition of stromal cells into cancer-associated fibroblasts.
Exosomes derived from solid tumor cells are involved in immune suppression, angiogenesis, and metastasis, but the role of leukemia-derived exosomes has been less investigated. The pathogenesis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is stringently associated with a tumor-supportive microenvironment and a dysfunctional immune system. Here, we explore the role of CLL-derived exosomes in the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which malignant cells create this favorable surrounding. We show that CLL-derived exosomes are actively incorporated by endothelial and mesenchymal stem cells ex vivo and in vivo and that the transfer of exosomal protein and microRNA induces an inflammatory phenotype in the target cells, which resembles the phenotype of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs). As a result, stromal cells show enhanced proliferation, migration, and secretion of inflammatory cytokines, contributing to a tumor-supportive microenvironment. Exosome uptake by endothelial cells increased angiogenesis ex vivo and in vivo, and coinjection of CLL-derived exosomes and CLL cells promoted tumor growth in immunodeficient mice. Finally, we detected alpha-smooth actin-positive stromal cells in lymph nodes of CLL patients. These findings demonstrate that CLL-derived exosomes actively promote disease progression by modulating several functions of surrounding stromal cells that acquire features of cancer-associated fibroblasts.