Key Points

  • Spontaneously regressed tumors are composed of a formerly proliferating CLL clone that has transitioned into a quiescent state.

  • A change in microenvironmental stimulation on an indolent genomic background state underpins clonal attrition in spontaneous CLL regression.

Spontaneous regression is a recognized phenomenon in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) but its biological basis remains unknown. We undertook a detailed investigation of the biological and clinical features of 20 spontaneous CLL regression cases incorporating phenotypic, functional, transcriptomic and genomic studies at sequential timepoints. All spontaneously regressed tumors were IGHV-mutated with no restricted IGHV usage or B-cell receptor (BCR) stereotypy. They exhibited shortened telomeres similar to non-regressing CLL indicating prior proliferation. They also displayed low Ki-67, CD49d, sIgM expression and IgM signaling response but high CXCR4 expression indicating low proliferative activity associated with poor migration to proliferation centers, with these features becoming increasingly marked during regression. Spontaneously regressed CLL displayed a transcriptome profile characterized by downregulation of metabolic processes as well as MYC and its downstream targets compared to non-regressing CLL. Moreover, spontaneous regression was associated with reversal of T-cell exhaustion features including reduced PD-1 expression and increased T-cell proliferation. Interestingly, archetypal CLL genomic aberrations including HIST1H1B and TP53 mutations and del(13q14) were found in some spontaneously regressing tumors, but genetic composition remained stable during regression. Conversely, a single case of CLL relapse following spontaneous regression was associated with increased BCR signaling, CLL proliferation and clonal evolution. These observations indicate that spontaneously regressing CLL appear to undergo a period of proliferation before entering a more quiescent state, and that a complex interaction between genomic alterations and microenvironment determines disease course. Together, the findings provide novel insight into the biological processes underpinning spontaneous CLL regression, with implications for CLL treatment.

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