Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology (Medicine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Sean Scully - Committee Chair

Second Committee Member

Kerry Burnstein - Committee Member

Third Committee Member

Thomas Malek - Committee Member

Fourth Committee Member

Izidore Lossos - Mentor

Fifth Committee Member

John Timmerman - Outside Committee Member


Interleukin-21 (IL-21), a recently discovered member of the IL-2 cytokine family, has been shown to have diverse regulatory effects on B cells including the induction of antibody secretion, differentiation, or apoptosis depending on the cell milieu and activation status. However, the effects of IL-21 on B cell neoplasms such as diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL) are largely unknown. Our research uncovered the widespread expression of the IL-21 receptor (IL-21R) in B cell lymphomas including DLBCL and that IL-21 stimulation resulted in potent phosphorylation of STAT1 and 3 and weak activation of STAT5. However, our findings also showed that treatment of DLBCL cell lines with IL-21 induced cell cycle arrest and apoptosis. The cell death was caspase-dependent and evident in a majority of DLBCL cell lines. To further examine the potential therapeutic applicability of IL-21, we assessed the effects of IL-21 on primary DLBCL tumors and in vivo DLBCL xenografts in mice. In primary tumors, IL-21 induced apoptosis in five of five DLBCLs compared to two of three follicular lymphomas and two of seven chronic lymphocytic leukemias. No apoptosis or cell death was induced in normal peripheral B lymphocytes. In mice bearing DLBCL xenograft tumors, in situ IL-21 injections induced tumor regression and dramatically extended the overall survival of mice (P<0.001). To elucidate the mechanism of IL-21-induced cell death we analyzed the expression of apoptosis-regulating proteins and observed a strong downregulation of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL and an upregulation of pro-apoptotic Bax post IL-21 stimulation. Subsequent experiments showed that ectopic expression of Bcl-2 or Bcl-XL was able to partially reduce cell death induced by IL-21 while Bax knockdown with siRNA blocked apoptosis completely. To gain insight into the signaling pathways shifting the expression of these proteins toward cell death we performed microarray analysis on sensitive and resistant DLBCL cell lines. The most striking difference in gene expression was observed in C-MYC which was only induced in cell lines exhibiting apoptosis upon IL-21 treatment. Previous reports have shown that c-Myc, which has been studied extensively for its oncogenic properties, can induce apoptosis via downregulation of its transcriptional targets Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL. We then showed that IL-21-induced cell death is dependent on c-Myc by utilizing specific siRNA and shRNA to block the upregulation of this transcription factor and prevent apoptosis. Since c-Myc is a bona-fide target of STAT3 we also showed that siRNA-mediated knockdown of STAT3 abrogated apoptosis by preventing c-Myc upregulation and its subsequent effects on apoptosis-regulating proteins. Our results delineate a novel IL-21 pro-apoptotic signaling pathway and one of the first examples in which the STAT3 - c-Myc pathway, which usually promotes B cell survival and oncogenesis, can be exploited for treatment of cancer. Furthermore, our findings demonstrate that IL-21 is a highly potent anti-DLBCL agent in vitro and in animal models and should be examined in clinical studies of DLBCL.


IL-21; STAT3; C-Myc; Dlbcl; Lymphoma; Interleukin-21