Analysis of immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgH) rearrangements in B-CLL differentiates subgroups of patients with significantly different clinical outcomes. Cases can be categorised according to mutational status of the variable (V) segment with unmutated VH regions linked to a worse prognosis. A restricted pattern of use of specific VH, DH and JH gene segments has also been reported in B-CLL. It has been hypothesised that B-CLL originates as a clonal expansion of B-cells that have been selected and activated by contact with self or foreign antigens, leading to those small clones to proliferate, mutate their IGH genes, acquire genetic lesions and eventually become malignant.

B-CLL cells normally express low levels of Ig on the surface, normally IgM, although a proportion of patients express IgG or IgA, following the class-switch recombination (CSR) process. We have analysed the pattern of SHM and gene segment usage in this particular subgroup for 44 patients with IgG B-CLL. Successful PCR amplification of recombined Smu-Sgamma switch region DNA was achieved in 40 patients, confirming the presence of IgG class-switching. Mutational analysis of IgH V genes revealed 80% of patients contained more than 2% somatic hypermutation (SHM), with 63% of samples having a greater than 5% SHM rate. For VH gene segment usage, a significant predominance of the VH4 family was seen in 22 cases (50%), followed by VH3 in 17 cases (39%), while VH1 family was found in only 3 of 44 samples, this differs from classical IgM B-CLL where VH3 family usage predominates. Overall, VH4-34 was the most frequently used gene segment (34%), followed by VH3-07 (14%) and VH4-39 (9%). DH6-13 was the most frequently used DH segment (21%), followed by DH6-19 (13%). JH gene segment usage did not differ from normal B-cells, with JH4 being the most frequently used, followed by JH6 and JH5. There was a significant association between VH4-39, DH6-13 and JH5 in three samples all containing unmutated sequence. Together this data reveals a distinct pattern of IGH VDJ rearrangements in IgG B-CLL compared to classical IgM B-CLL. Firstly, the rate of SHM in IgG B-CLL (80%) is significantly higher than the 50% observed in IgM B-CLL. Secondly, VH segment usage pattern differs between the two subgroups with a significant under-representation of VH1 as well as an over-representation of VH4 family members in the IgG subgroup. Finally, there is a striking association between VH4-39 and DH6-13/JH5 in the very few unmutated rearrangements. This could be indicative of a different clonal history of these particular B cells in B-CLL. Together with recent published data, this latter finding suggests that this is a further sub-category exclusive to IgG B-CLL, where selection of a specific antigen receptor may have lead to B-CLL development in such cases. We conclude that class-switched IgG B-CLL contains different molecular features in the IgH genes compared with classical IgM B-CLL, and other B-cell malignancies. The clinical implications of these differences, especially the relationship between the mutational status of the VH genes and outcome in IgG B-CLL, will be further investigated.

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