Early T-cell precursor (ETP) ALL accounting for 10% of all T-ALL cases is of special interest because of its proposed origin from early thymic progenitors with multilineage differentiation potential. ETP-ALL is associated with a poorer outcome in pediatric and adult patients. On the molecular level, ETP-ALL is characterized by a specific immunophenotype (CD1-, CD5weak, CD8-, co-expression of stem cell and/or myeloid antigens) and distinct molecular features (expression of stem cell genes, high frequency of FLT3 mutations with absence of NOTCH1 mutations). Whereas a highly heterogeneous genetic pattern was revealed by whole genome sequencing in pediatric patients, the genetic background of adult ETP-ALL remains largely unknown. Here we investigated genetic alterations in adult ETP-ALL by whole exome sequencing and subsequently analyzed specific target genes.
We performed whole exome sequencing of five paired (diagnosis/remission) adult ETP-ALL patients enrolled in German Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Multicenter Study Group (GMALL) trials. Using exon capturing from genomic DNA, followed by 76-bp paired-end sequencing on an Illumina Genome Analyzer IIx platform, we generated at least 5 Gb of exome sequence from each ETP-ALL and remission samples. Somatic mutations were identified by comparing the ETP-ALL with the remission exome sequence, excluding all annotated polymorphisms (dbSNP130), non-coding positions and positions with evidence of a variant in the corresponding remission samples. Candidate variants were confirmed by capillary sequencing of genomic DNA. The DNMT3A mutations status was analyzed by Sanger sequencing of exons 11–23 in additional 68 adult ETP-ALL (55 male, 13 female, median age: 38 years) as well as the mutation status of the polycomb repressor complex (PRC) genes EZH2 and SUZ12. For 52 of 68 patients clinical follow-up data were available.
Using whole exome sequencing we found a total of 56 non-synonymous somatic mutations or indels in the five ETP-ALL patients (range: 6 to 16 per patient). Eleven mutations/indels affected cancer genes. DNMT3A (2/5) and FAT3 (2/5) were recurrently mutated in the five patients. The DNA-methyl-transferase DNMT3A is a frequent mutational target in acute myeloid leukemia (AML; 20%), whereas FAT3 (FAT, tumor suppressor homolog 3) mutations were recently reported in ovarian carcinoma (TCGA, Nature 2011). Novel mutations identified in adult ETP-ALL involved genes in epigenetic regulation (e.g. MLL2, MLL3, BMI1), and in genes previously reported to be mutated in ETP-ALL (e.g. in JAK1, ETV6, NOTCH1, DNM2).
By Sanger sequencing, we screened for DNMT3A mutations in a larger cohort of adult ETP-ALL. DNMT3A mutations were present in 11 of the 68 (16%) patients, a mutation rate similar to AML. Amino acid R882 (exon 23), the most frequently mutated amino acid in AML, was mutated in five ETP-ALL. The remaining six mutations occurred in single spots, with one exception in the ZNF or the MTF domain. Patients with a DNMT3A mutation were significantly older (median: 63 vs 37 years, P=0.016). No correlation was found between DNMT3A and FLT3 mutations (27% in DNMT3A mut pts. vs. 37% in DNMT3A wt pts., P=0.41) or NOTCH1 mutations (10% in DNMT3A mut pts. vs. 16% in DNMT3A wt pts., P=0.47).
In addition, we investigated genetic alterations in epigenetic regulators including members of the polycomb repressor complex (PRC). Mutations were seen in EZH2 in 4/68 (6%), SUZ12 in 1/68 (1%) and SH2B3 in 4/69 (6%) of ETP-ALL. Interestingly, patients with at least one mutation in an epigenetic regulator gene (DNMT3A, SUZ12, SH2B3, MLL2, or EZH2) showed a trend towards an inferior survival (one-year-survival: 50% vs. 85%, P=0.08).
Adult ETP-ALL patients display a heterogenous spectrum of mutations, particularly affecting genes involved in epigenetic regulation. The spectrum is different to pediatric patients with a lower rate of polycomb repressor complex and a higher rate of DNMT3A mutations. The higher rate of DNMT3A mutations in older patients might point to a different pathogenesis compared to pediatric ETP-ALL. Like in AML, DNMT3A mutations in adult ETP-ALL show a similar frequency, within the same hot spots and are correlated with an adverse prognostic value, underscoring the myeloid character of ETP-ALL. Thus, these data may provide a rationale to use epigenetic therapy in ETP-ALL.
Krebs:Illumina: Honoraria. Greif:Illumina: Honoraria.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.