BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) B-cells are refractory to activation signals and to apoptosis. CD40 triggering, however, rescues CLL B-cells from their anergic state and upregulates the FAS receptor. We therefore studied whether CD40 triggering enhances CLL B-cell sensitivity to fludarabine, and receptors or cytokines potentially involved in apoptosis. DESIGN AND METHODS: CD40-activation of CLL B-cells was carried out by co-culture with CD40L-transfected cells. After fludarabine treatment, apoptosis was evaluated by propidium iodide (PI), annexin-V/PI or DiOC6 staining and flow cytometry analysis. Modulation of Bcl-2, of tumor necrosis factor receptor (TNFRI/II) and release of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)alpha/interferon (IFN)gamma was also analyzed. Furthermore, addition of caspase-inhibitors or anti-TNFalpha/-IFNgamma monoclonal antibodies to fludarabine-treated cells allowed us to determine the mediators of apoptosis. Student's t tests or ANOVA variance statistical analysis were performed to evaluate whether any differences observed might be considered significant. RESULTS: CD40 triggering enhanced fludarabine sensitivity of CLL B-cells, downmodulated Bcl-2 and upregulated TNFRI/II. Caspases 1 and 6 were the major caspases involved in fludarabine apoptosis induction in resting B cells, while only anti-TNFalpha/-IFNgamma monoclonal antibodies reduced apoptosis in activated cells. In agreement with this observation, autocrine production of TNFalpha and IFNgamma by CD40-activated CLL B cells was found. INTERPRETATION AND CONCLUSIONS: B-cells from a considerable proportion of CLL cases studied (11/20) are more prone to fludarabine-induced apoptosis after CD40 triggering; accordingly Bcl-2 expression was lower in activated cells. Moreover, upregulation of TNFRI/II, release of TNFalpha and IFNgamma, and inhibition of apoptosis by anti-TNFalpha/-IFNgamma monoclonal antibodies in CD40-activated cells strongly suggest that these cytokines may play a role in sensitizing B-cells to fludarabine treatment.