Fludarabine-refractoriness of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is due to TP53 disruption in ∼40% of refractory cases, but in a sizeable fraction of patients the molecular basis of this aggressive clinical phenotype remains unclear. Our initial findings from whole exome sequencing of fludarabine-refractory CLL led to the identification of recurrent mutations of SF3B1, a critical component of the cell spliceosome, prompting further investigations of these alterations in a large CLL panel. The study population comprised 3 clinical cohorts representative of: i) fludarabine-refractory CLL (n=59), including cases (n=11) subjected to whole exome sequencing; ii) newly diagnosed and previously untreated CLL (n=301); and iii) clonally related RS (n=33). Tumor samples were obtained: i) for fludarabine-refractory CLL, immediately before starting the treatment to which the patient eventually failed to respond; ii) for newly diagnosed and previously untreated CLL, at disease presentation. All RS studies were performed on RS diagnostic biopsies. Mutation analysis of SF3B1 was performed on genomic DNA by a combination of Sanger sequencing and targeted next generation sequencing. SF3B1 was altered in 10/59 (17%) fludarabine-refractory CLL by missense mutations (n=9) or in-frame deletions (n=1) clustering in the HEAT3, HEAT4 and HEAT5 repeats of the SF3B1 protein. Two sites that are highly conserved inter-species (codon 662 and codon 700) were recurrently mutated in 3 and 5 cases, respectively. SF3B1 mutations were monoallelic, and were predicted to be functionally significant according to the PolyPhen-2 algorithm. Mutations occurred irrespective of IGHV mutation status, CD38 expression and ZAP70 expression. At the time of fludarabine-refractoriness, SF3B1 mutations were enriched in cases harboring a normal FISH karyotype (p=.008) and distributed in a mutually exclusive fashion with TP53 disruption (mutual information I =0.0609; p=.046). By combining SF3B1 mutations with other genetic lesions enriched in chemorefractory cases (TP53 disruption, NOTCH1 mutations, ATM deletion), fludarabine-refractory CLL appeared to be characterized by multiple molecular alterations that, to some extent, are mutually exclusive. We then compared the prevalence of mutations observed at the time of fludarabine-refractoriness to that observed in other disease phases. At diagnosis, SF3B1 mutations were rare (17/301; 5%), and showed a crude association with short treatment free survival (p<.001) and overall survival (p=.011). Remarkably, 5/17 (29%) CLL mutated at diagnosis were primary fludarabine-refractory patients. In CLL investigated at diagnosis, the hotspot distribution and molecular spectrum of SF3B1 mutations, as well as their mutual relationship with other genetic lesions, were similar to those observed in fludarabine-refractory CLL. SF3B1 mutations were restricted to 2/33 (6.0%) clonally-related RS. Across the different disease phases investigated, mutations were somatically acquired in all cases (n=18) for which germline DNA was available. These data document that mutations of SF3B1, a splicing factor that is a critical component of the spliceosome; i) recurrently associate with fludarabine-refractory CLL; ii) occur at a low rate at CLL presentation; iii) play a minor role in RS transformation, corroborating the notion that CLL histologic shift is molecularly distinct from chemorefractory progression without RS transformation. The identification of SF3B1 mutations points to the involvement of splicing regulation as a novel pathogenetic mechanism in CLL. The pathogenicity of SF3B1 mutations in CLL is strongly supported by clustering of these mutations in evolutionarily conserved hotspots localized within HEAT domains, which are tandemly arranged curlicue-like structures serving as flexible scaffolding on which other components can assemble. Also, the observation that SF3B1 regulates the alternative splicing program of genes controlling cell cycle progression and apoptosis points to a potential contribution of SF3B1 mutations in modulating tumor cell proliferation and survival. In addition to pathogenetic implications, SF3B1 mutations might also provide a therapeutic target for SF3B1 inhibitors, that are currently under pre-clinical development as anti-cancer drugs.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.