Plerixafor on a WHIM – Promise or Fantasy of a New CXCR4 Inhibitor for This Rare, but Important Syndrome?

Nickoo Merati, MSc; Sriraam Sivachandran; Abdulhadi Jfri, MD; Moshe Ben-Shoshan, MD; Donald C. Vinh, MD, FRCPC; Gizelle Popradi, MD, FRCPC; Ivan V. Litvinov, MD, PhD, FRCPC


Skin Therapy Letter. 2022;27(2):1-5. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Warts, Hypogammaglobulinemia, Infections and Myelokathexis (WHIM) is a primary immunodeficiency syndrome. Patients with WHIM syndrome are more susceptible to human papillomavirus (HPV) infections and commonly present to a dermatologist with recalcitrant to treatment warts. Other cardinal features of WHIM syndrome include recurrent sinopulmonary bacterial infections, neutropenia/lymphopenia, low levels of immunoglobulins (IgG, IgA, IgM) and myelokathexis. Research demonstrated that truncating gain-of-function mutations of the C-X-C chemokine receptor type 4 gene (CXCR4) are responsible for this disease. Plerixafor, a specific small molecule antagonist of CXCR4, is currently used for peripheral blood hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) mobilization in stem cell transplant recipients. It has recently shown promise for the treatment of WHIM syndrome in phase I/II clinical trials. In this paper we review the emerging patient clinical data for this medication and highlight the role of CXCR4 in other important skin diseases including keratinocyte carcinomas, psoriasis and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.


Warts, Hypogammaglobulinemia, Infections and Myelokathexis (WHIM) is a primary immunodeficiency syndrome. As the name suggests, patients with WHIM syndrome are more susceptible to human papillomavirus (HPV),[1] which can cause warts and potentially lead to squamous cell carcinomas; hypogammaglobulinemia; recurrent bacterial infections, such as otitis media, cellulitis, pneumonia and sinusitis; and bone marrow myelokathexis, characterized by a retention and apoptosis of mature neutrophils resulting neutropenia. The laboratory manifestations include severe neutropenia, significant lymphopenia, leukopenia, and monocytopenia.

WHIM syndrome is a rare disease with ~70 cases reported in the medical literature to date.[2,3] In 2003, the cause of WHIM syndrome was traced to a heterozygous, truncating gain-of-function mutations of the C-X-C chemokine receptor type 4 gene (CXCR4) on chromosome 2 (2q22.1), resulting in a hyperactive signalling of this G-protein coupled receptor. While not yet fully deciphered, it is postulated that increased CXCR4 receptor activity upon binding of its cognate stromal cell-derived factor-1 (SDF-1; also known as CXCL12) ligand, prevents the release of mature neutrophils and promotes their apoptosis in the marrow (Figure 1A-B). This cellular mechanism drives myelokathexis that is observed clinically in affected patients. The CXCR4 mutations are inherited in autosomal dominant manner. Some patients with WHIM syndrome, however, do not have a detectable CXCR4 gene mutation, suggesting that mutations in other genes may be involved.

Figure 1A.

The chemokine stromal cell-derived factor-1 (SDF-1) binds to the transmembrane CXCR4 receptor (a G protein-coupled transmembrane protein) in the bone marrow. CXCR4 regulates the mobilization of neutrophils and lymphocytes from bone marrow by first blocking their release; as the neutrophils mature, SDF-1-CXCR4 is internalized and hence turned off, allowing for the release of neutrophils and lymphocytes and effective mobilization into the blood stream.

Figure 1B.

A gain-of-function mutation in patients with the WHIM syndrome leads to inappropriate hyperactivity of the CXCR4 receptor and failed internalization, leading to a prolonged retention of neutrophils and lymphocytes in the bone marrow leading to myelokathexis and immunodeficiency.

The diagnosis of WHIM syndrome relies on identifying the clinical features, a detailed patient medical history, family history, and genetic testing. In particular, patients with recalcitrant HPV warts and recurrent sinopulmonary bacterial infections should be further evaluated with a complete blood count and differential (to detect neutropenia and lymphopenia), and immunoglobulins (IgG, IgA, IgM) to detect hypogammaglobulinemia. Family history may reveal vertical transmission in autosomal dominant fashion, if more than one generation is affected. A bone marrow biopsy may be performed to detect myelokathexis.

While potential molecular mechanisms have been elucidated, the effectiveness of standard WHIM syndrome therapies is variable and more targeted therapies are urgently needed. Until recently most patients were managed using a combination of granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), skin-directed treatments of warts, prophylactic antibiotics, and intravenous gamma globulin (IVIG) therapy.

In 2009, a group of researchers sought to therapeutically target the CXCR4 receptor. Plerixafor, a specific small molecule antagonist of CXCR4 (Figure 1C), was originally licensed by the United States Food and Drug Administration for peripheral blood hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) mobilization in stem cell transplant recipients. Plerixafor (Mozobil®) has been used in Canada and in the United States since 2012.[4] Notably, a novel application for this medication has been defined, where McDermott and colleagues conducted a phase I clinical trial (NCT00967785) using plerixafor as a treatment for 20 patients with WHIM syndrome.[3,5–7] They found that 9 patients who received low-dose plerixafor safely mobilized neutrophils and had an improvement in all other leukocyte subsets.[3,5–7] A follow-up study in 3 of the participants demonstrated sustained responses for at least 6 months using a dosage of 0.02–0.04 mg/kg/day subcutaneously with no new warts developing and regression of old warts. In 2014, these promising results led the investigators to conduct a phase III randomized, double-blinded, crossover trial (NCT02231879) to establish safety and efficacy of plerixafor compared to standard G-CSF treatment in patients aged 10–75 years with WHIM syndrome. Nineteen patients were randomized to 1 year of G-CSF and 1 year of plerixafor using a crossover design, allowing direct comparison of infection severity during treatment with both agents. Doses were personalized to each patient's neutrophil response. Study participants had a clinical diagnosis of WHIM syndrome and were proven to have a heterozygous mutation in the CXRC4 gene.[8] While the trial is currently ongoing, some early data is beginning to emerge from this group.

Figure 1C.

Plerixafor binds to CXCR4 receptor in the bone marrow and blocks the SDF-1-CXCR4 interaction, allowing for normal mobilization of neutrophils and lymphocytes into the blood stream.

During recruitment, McDermott and colleagues identified 3 patients who were ineligible to participate in the larger study as they could not receive G-CSF. The researchers began a concomitant study with these patients, treating them with plerixafor (according to their phase 1 protocol) for 20–50 months. These findings have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. McDermott et al. reported improvement in all 3 patients' white cells counts, platelet counts and hemoglobin levels.[9] In 2 out of 3 patients these results were observed after discontinuing G-CSF, which was deemed ineffective. Bone marrow biopsies revealed marked amelioration of severe pre-treatment myelofibrosis and myelokathexis in 2 of the patients after using plerixafor for 24 and 52 months.[9] With the adjunct use of imiquimod in 2 of the patients and double HPV vaccination in 1 of the patients, HPV-associated wart burden improved noticeably on the hands, feet and genitals. Mixed results though were obtained with HPV-associated tumors, which were managed with debulking and surgery. Susceptibility to infections and inflammation also differed amongst the patients; however, 1 patient was noted to have a marked reduction in infection frequency compared to his pre-treatment baseline, and a significantly higher quality of life, where he was able to exercise, enjoy the outdoors and work without being fearful of recurrent infections and hospitalizations.

The results of these case studies are exciting and suggest that clinicians and patients with WHIM syndrome might expect favorable clinical outcomes with plerixafor. However, as with any new therapeutic indication, we must await the efficacy and safety results of the phase III trial, especially considering that chronic leukocyte mobilization from bone marrow with plerixafor could result in as of yet undescribed cumulative toxicities.[10,11] It will also be crucial to determine the effect of plerixafor on immune cell function including mitogen induced T-cell proliferation and T-cell dependent humoral immunity.

Also, another phase II/III clinical trial (NCT03005327) is being conducted by researchers in Florida, investigating the use of mavorixafor (X4P-001), a different small molecule targeting hyperactive CXCR4 receptor.[12] Funded by X4 Pharmaceuticals, researchers have demonstrated positive preliminary clinical findings using mavorixafor in a group of 6 WHIM patients, showing increased white cell counts and improved clinical outcomes. Unlike plerixafor, mavorixafor is administered orally.[13] Additional phase II results published on 8 patients in Blood demonstrated that this medication was well tolerated by patients (with no treatment-related serious adverse events) using a dose of 400 mg daily and led to neutrophil mobilization, reduced infection rates and reduction in the number of warts.[14]