Introduction: BCR-ABL1-like, or Philadelphia-like acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph-like ALL), is characterized by a gene expression profile similar to BCR-ABL1-positive ALL, with a broad range of genetic alterations activating cytokine receptor and kinase signaling and poor outcome. We previously reported a rearrangement of EPOR, encoding the erythropoietin receptor, into the immunoglobulin heavy chain locus (IGH). The aims of this study were to define the frequency and genomic architecture of EPOR rearrangements in B-ALL and to examine their role in kinase signaling and lymphoid transformation.

Methods: Whole genome and/or transcriptome sequencing was performed on 154 Ph-like ALL cases. Sanger sequencing and fluorescent in situ hybridization were used to confirm and map the EPOR rearrangements. Wild-type or EPOR rearranged alleles were expressed in interleukin-3 (IL-3)-dependent mouse hematopoietic Ba/F3 cells and interleukin-7 (IL-7)-dependent pre-B cells harboring alterations of Arf and/or the dominant negative IKZF1 allele IK6 observed in EPOR-rearranged ALL. Proliferation and signaling were examined in the absence or presence of erythropoietin (EPO). EPOR expression and signaling in cell lines and primary leukemic cells were examined by immunofluorescence, flow cytometry and immunoblotting. Epor-/- fetal liver cells were transduced with empty vector, EPOR wild-type or rearranged alleles and used for erythroid colony forming unit (CFU-E) and erythroid burst-forming unit (BFU-E) assays. Luciferase-marked xenografts of human EPOR-rearranged ALL were established in NOD-SCID-IL2R gamma (NSG) null mice, and signaling, EPO-dependent proliferation and sensitivity to the JAK inhibitor ruxolitinib were assessed ex vivo and in vivo.

Results: Eight cases (5.2% of Ph-like ALL) harbored rearrangements of EPOR into either the IGH or immunoglobulin kappa light chain (IGK) loci with two consequences: i) inversion and insertion of EPOR 5’ untranscribed region into the the promoter and enhancer region of IGH/IGK; ii) truncation of the last coding exon of EPOR. Such rearrangements resulted in overexpression of a C-terminal truncated receptor that retained the phosphorylation site required for STAT5 activation, but lacked multiple intracytoplasmic tyrosine residues whose phosphorylation is required for normal negative regulation of the receptor. Notably, the locations of the truncation sites overlap with those arising from inherited mutations in primary familial congenital polycythemia, in which frameshift and nonsense mutations truncate the receptor. A real-time quantitative PCR assay was established to provide a diagnostic tool and to confirm that primary leukemia cells with these EPOR rearrangements overexpress N-terminal exons but lack expression of C-terminal truncated exon eight. The truncated alleles were expressed at higher levels than wild-type EPOR in IL-3-dependent Ba/F3 and IL-7-dependent Arf-/- mouse pre-B cells, and sustained cell proliferation and increased STAT5 phosphorylation following stimulation with exogenous EPO. Expression of wild-type or truncated EPOR in Epor-/- fetal liver cells promoted erythroid differentiation with formation of CFU-E and BFU-E colonies, indicating that truncated receptors sustain erythroid development. Xenografted EPOR-rearranged leukemic cells exhibited high levels of mutant EPOR on the cell surface, constitutive STAT5 phosphorylation and sensitivity to the JAK2 inhibitor ruxolitinib ex vivo and in vivo.

Conclusions: We have identified a subset of Ph-like ALL cases characterized by rearrangements of truncated EPOR into the IGH/IGK chain loci. This represents an entirely new mechanism of EPOR deregulation and unexpectedly implicates EPOR signaling as an important factor influencing B-lymphoid malignancies that are amenable to JAK-STAT5 inhibition. Clinical trials testing ruxolitinib in ALL patients with EPOR rearrangements are warranted.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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