Events mediating transformation from the pre-malignant MGUS to MM is largely unknown. Previous studies have highlighted RAS mutation as a progression event. However, this abnormality is present in only a small subset of patients. Global gene expression differences between MGUS and MM have been reported but provided little coherent biological insights. To define progression events, we examined the differences in gene expression profiles (GEP, Affymetrix U133A genechip) between 101 MM and 22 MGUS using a powerful functional genomic tool, Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (Subramanium et al PNAS 2005), that allow extraction of biological information based on enrichment of genes associated with a phenotype within gene-sets derived experimentally or extracted from database. We found that a predominant theme relating to MM progression is the over-expression of proliferation related genes in MM highlighted by the enrichment of cell cycle related gene-sets. Another common theme is the enrichment of gene-sets relating to MYC activation. Seven of eight gene-sets related to MYC activation in the database are significantly enriched (p-value <0.05 and false detection rate <0.05). Leading edge (enriched genes) analysis of enriched MYC-related and proliferation-related gene-sets revealed a core, overlapping signature of 8 genes specific to MYC and not proliferation. These genes are further verified as MYC transcriptional targets using Metacore, a network analysis tool. In addition, 7 of the 8 genes had been validated as MYC target genes by chromatin immunoprecipitation previously (www.myccancergene.org). We validated this signature in independent publicly available cell lines and mouse gene expression experiments where this signature is present in mammary epithelial cell lines engineered to over-express MYC but not E2F3, SRC and BCAT, and mouse embryonic fibroblast over-expressing MYC but not HER2 or with RB knocked-out. In addition, analysis of proliferation index in these datasets showed that there is dissociation of proliferation from this signature. This showed conclusively that our signature is MYC specific and not related to proliferation. Of interest, the signature is also present in cell lines with activating RAS mutation, which also have high expression of MYC, suggesting that MYC activation is a downstream effect of activated RAS signaling. Indeed, in our patient cohort, most patients with RAS mutation express this signature. When applied to 2 large GEP MM patient cohorts, this signature was not present in normal plasma cells, rarely present in MGUS, and present in a significant proportion of MM and almost all the human myeloma cell lines. When analyzed in the context of other B-cell malignancies, the signature is very strong in Burkitt’s lymphoma, present in most myeloma but absent in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia, and normal B-cells. Our analysis therefore suggests that MYC activation may be a unifying pathological event in MGUS to MM progression. As MYC translocations occur in only about 13% of newly diagnosed MM patients, activating RAS mutations and other trans-mechanisms may mediate MYC activation. Our recent demonstration that sporadic MYC activation in a mouse strain prone to monoclonal gammopathy led to MM development provides important functional proof.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.