NOTCH1 mutations have recently emerged as new genetic lesions significantly correlated with survival in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). NOTCH1 c.7541_7542delCT is by far the most frequently observed NOTCH1 mutation in the disease.

To estimate the prevalence and clonal evolution of NOTCH1 c.7541_7542delCT mutation, and prospectively investigate its clinical significance in early stage CLL and clinical monoclonal B cell lymphocytosis (cMBL), we analyzed by next generation sequencing (NGS) 384 cases at diagnosis enrolled in the GISL O-CLL1 multicenter trial. The patient cohort included 100 cMBL and 284 Binet stage A CLL cases, 48 of whom were also longitudinally investigated at progression or during follow-up (32 and 16, respectively) in absence of treatment. Deep sequencing of the NOTCH1 mutation hotspot was performed by Roche 454 pyrosequencing on the Genome Sequencer Junior instrument. NOTCH1 mutation was validated by an extremely sensitive PCR-based approach and Sanger sequencing. The association between NOTCH1c.7541_7542delCT and clinical, molecular and biological variables, as well as its impact on progression free survival (PFS), were tested.

Deep sequencing analysis of NOTCH1 mutation hotspot in our cohort (median depth of coverage 1510x, ranging from 605 to 2842) revealed a mutant allele frequency ranging from 0.02% to 75% of total reads in 145 cases. The occurrence of the mutation was subsequently assessed by an extremely sensitive ARMS (amplification refractory mutation system)-PCR, which allowed to confirm the presence of delCT in the 49 cases with frequency of mutated sequencing reads greater than 0.7%, specifically in 11% of cMBL (11/100) and 13.4% of CLL patients (38/284). Furthermore, mutated samples were subjected to DNA Sanger sequencing: in line with the expected sensitivity of the method, the mutation was identified only in samples with higher mutation loads according to NGS (mutant allele frequency ≥ 7%, n=25). Our data revealed that often NOTCH1 mutational activation affected a neoplastic sub-clone, especially in cMBL patients. NOTCH1 mutated patients utilized unmutated IGHV genes more frequently, and had higher expression of CD38 and ZAP-70 (P=3.2e-11, P=2.6e-08, P=3.4e-05, respectively). Trisomy 12 was more frequent in this patient group (P=5.4e-04), whereas 13q14 deletion was less represented than in the NOTCH1 wild-type patients (P=2.8e-03). NOTCH1 mutation was associated with the occurrence of stereotyped HCDR3 (P=5.6e-03); in addition, compared with other major BCR subsets, CLL subset #10 was significantly enriched in NOTCH1 mutations (P=0.032). The prevalence of the analyzed dinucleotide deletion was not significantly different between cMBL and CLL patients, even if only Rai 0 cases (28/197 cases, 14.2% mutation frequency) were considered. The percentages of variant sequencing reads in NOTCH1-mutated cases were slightly higher in CLL (median 19.6%) than in cMBL (median 4.2%), a finding confirmed by a regression analysis that highlighted the association of the CLL presentation with higher percentages of NOTCH1 delCT reads (P=0.033). NOTCH1-mutated cases, both at sub-clonal and clonal levels, displayed a significant reduction in median PFS (P=0.0018), although NOTCH1 mutation prognostic value, in multivariate analysis, was not independent if 11q and/or 17p deletion, IGHV mutational status, and cMBL or CLL status were considered. Finally, sequential analyses in a representative fraction of cases of our dataset indicated that (i) NOTCH1 mutation did not occur during the course of the disease and that (ii) the mutational load in positive cases was stable over time.

These findings highlight the importance of using high sensitive methods for an accurate detection of NOTCH1 mutation in cMBL/early stage CLL. This is required for a better prognostic stratification and also to obtain useful information for potential therapeutic approaches, since sub-clonal mutations in untreated CLL can possibly anticipate the dominant genetic composition of the relapsing tumor.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.