BACKGROUND: In contrast to other B-cell neoplasias, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is not only characterized by a clonal expansion of specific B-cells, but also by an increase in non-leukemic T-cells, most likely involved in sustaining the growth of the leukemic B-cell clone. Based on ZAP-70, CD38 and the IgVH mutation status, two prognostic groups of CLL patients can be identified. Our aim was to characterize the replicative histories of the B- and T-cells in the two groups of CLL patients compared to healthy individuals.

PATIENTS and METHODS: Blood samples from 73 patients with CLL (ZAP-70/CD38: n = 29, ZAP-70+/CD38+: n = 30, ZAP-70/CD38 discordant: n = 14) were analyzed. The quantity and characteristics of the lymphocyte subsets was assessed by a cell counter and by immunophenotypic analysis. The replicative histories of naive and memory T-cells as well as B-cells was determined by measurements of telomere length in peripheral blood leukocytes of CLL patients and healthy individuals by automated multicolor flow-FISH.

RESULTS: As expected, the average telomere length of the clonal B-cells was short. The telomere length was, however, significantly shorter for the ZAP-70+/CD38+ patient samples (2.46 ± 1.08 kb) than for the ZAP-70/CD38 patient samples (5.06 ± 1.76 kb, p < 6.7 x 10−9). Interestingly, also the naive and memory T-cells from ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients exhibited significantly shorter average telomere lengths (mean ± std: 4.85 ± 1.58 kb; 4.39 ± 1.09 kb) than T-cells from ZAP-70/CD38 CLL patients (6.64 ± 1.72 kb, p < 2.2 x 10−4; 6.22 ± 1.5 kb, p < 7.4 x 10−6). These results are in line with the observed higher absolute T-cell numbers in the ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients compared to ZAP-70/CD38 CLL patients. Moreover, the average telomere loss in relation to time from primary diagnosis to sample date was higher for naive T-cells than memory T-cells in ZAP-70+/CD38+ patients (7.8 vs. 5.8 bp/month). When we compared the telomere length to age-related percentiles calculated from over 400 healthy individuals aged 0–102 years practically all telomere length values of the naive and memory T-cells from the ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients fell below the 50th percentile, whereas the values of naive and memory T-cells from the ZAP-70/CD38 CLL patients were within the normal distribution.

CONCLUSIONS: We can confirm significantly shorter telomere length values for the B-cells of the ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients. In addition, we can also demonstrate significantly shorter telomeres in T-cells of ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients, which are below the 50th percentile compared to controls, and a higher telomere loss over time for naive T-cells of ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients. As telomere length shortens approximately 50 to 100 bp per cell division the observed decrease in telomere length of the T-cells in ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients equals to approximately 18 to 36 population doublings. This is by far more than expected by the slightly higher T-cell numbers in the peripheral blood. Our observations imply an extensive expansion of the T-cell compartment in ZAP-70+/CD38+ CLL patients and suggest an important role of T-cells in this subgroup of CLL patients.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.