ZAP-70 expression is a prognostic marker differentiating chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients with indolent disease from those rapidly progressing after diagnosis and requiring treatment. We previously demonstrated in four independent clinical cohorts that DNA methylation at a single CpG dinucleotide in the ZAP-70 promoter region impacts on ZAP-70 transcriptional regulation and is prognostic in CLL (Claus et al. J Clin Oncol. 2012;30(20):2483–91). Here, we confirm and extend our previous findings by investigating the significance of ZAP-70 methylation relative to established prognostic biomarkers in CLL: IGHV mutation status or expression of ZAP-70 protein or CD38.
DNA methylation analysis of the ZAP-70 core promoter region was conducted in mononuclear cells of 295 untreated CLL patients, previously reported by the CRC (Rassenti et al. Blood 2008;112:1923–30) using MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry (MassARRAY, Sequenom). The 295 patients had a median age of 55 years (range 26–82), 69% were male, and 46% were Rai stage 0, 47% stage I/II, and 7% stage III/IV at diagnosis. ZAP-70 protein and CD38 expression were measured by four-color flow cytometry and IGHV mutational status was assessed, as previously described.
By hierarchical clustering, the previously identified single CpG dinucleotide (“CpG unit 1”, position +223 relative to the transcription start) separated patients with high methylation levels across the entire region from those with lower methylation levels at this specific site. With a median follow-up of 3.9 years in 50 patients who had not started treatment and 5.6 years among those still alive (n=196), patients with lower methylation levels at CpG unit 1 had shortened time to first treatment (TTT) and overall survival (OS) (both p<0.0001), confirming the prognostic relevance of this site. In our previous study, an optimal cut-off for CpG unit 1 methylation across four data sets was between 10% and 20%. In this cohort, the optimal cut-off across the two endpoints was between 15% and 25%. A natural gap in CpG unit 1 methylation levels occurred between 20% and 25%, adding potential biological significance, as lower values may represent patient cell samples in which both alleles are unmethylated. Applying a 20% cut-off, TTT and OS were significantly different for those with lower and higher methylation levels (both p<0.0001). The 5-year TTT estimates were 22% (95 % CI: 0.16–0.28) and 64% (95% CI: 0.52–0.74), respectively, for patients with low versus high methylation levels; 5-year OS estimates were 80% (95% CI: 0.73–0.85) and 90% (95% CI: 0.81–0.95). Low ZAP-70 methylation was significantly associated with CLL-cell expression of ZAP-70, CD38, or unmutated IGHV status (each p<0.0001). In a model of TTT, expression of ZAP-70 modified the strong effect of ZAP-70 methylation. In patients with CLL cells lacking ZAP-70 expression, high methylation was protective (hazard ratio [HR]=0.37, 95% CI: 0.23–0.58). In contrast, methylation had no significant effect in ZAP-70+ CLL (HR=1.47, 95% CI: 0.81–2.68); TTT was short regardless of methylation levels (Figure 1). IGHV mutation status and expression of CD38 did not provide significant additional prognostic information. The effect modification described for TTT was not observed for OS (p=0.57). Here, ZAP-70 methylation was the strongest risk factor (hazard ratio=0.32, 95% CI: 0.19–0.54; p<0.0001), and expression of ZAP-70, CD38 or unmutated IGHV did not significantly improve the ability to explain differences in OS.
Hence, the prognostic value of ZAP-70 CpG unit 1 methylation was confirmed in a large patient cohort with extensive follow-up. We defined a clinically applicable threshold for ZAP-70 methylation assessment and determined its relative value to current prognostic markers in CLL. ZAP-70 methylation predicted longer TTT among patients with CLL cells lacking ZAP-70 expression, but not among those with ZAP-70+ CLL cells, although this could reflect sampling bias due to the small number of patients (n=16) in our cohort with both high methylation and expression of ZAP-70. Lastly, methylation was the strongest risk factor for OS, and neither IGHV mutation status nor expression of ZAP-70 or CD38 significantly improved the ability to predict prognosis. In conclusion, ZAP-70 DNA methylation represents a clinically valuable biomarker for predicting TTT and OS in previously untreated patients with CLL.
Gribben:Gilead: Honoraria; Mundipharma: Honoraria; GSK: Honoraria; Pharmacyclics: Honoraria; Roche: Honoraria; Celgene: Honoraria. Kay:Celgene: Research Funding.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.