Background: Transient leukemia (TL) occurs in 30% of newborns with Down syndrome (DS) and typically resolves spontaneously. Approximately 20% of infants with TL go on to develop acute myeloid leukemia of DS (DS-AML) within the first four years of life. The blasts of both TL and DS-AML harbor somatic mutations of GATA1 . The objective of this study was to identify additional genetic events, which associated with the progression of TL to DS-AML.

Methods: Leukemic blasts of TL, DS-AML and normal T lymphocytes were sorted from blood and bone marrow samples of five patients who successively developed both disorders. In addition, blasts of one patient with subsequent relapse of DS-AML were analyzed. Mutational spectrum and gene expression and were determined by exome sequencing and RNASeq (Illumina HiSeq2000). The presence of mutations, which were identified with this approach in DS-AML blasts, was examined by droplet digital PCR in TL blasts (BioRad QX200).

Results: Blasts of TL overall harbored fewer mutations than those of DS-AML. Mutations of cohesin and RAS pathway genes were identified in a subset of DS-AML but not TL. In the patient who developed a relapse, different cohesin gene mutations were detected at initial diagnosis of AML and relapse; a minor clone present at initial diagnosis of AML emerged as the predominant clone at relapse. Concordant somatic GATA1 mutations were present in both TL and DS-AML blasts derived from the same patient. In contrast, other genetic events, which were detected in DS-AML blasts by exome sequencing, were confirmed to be absent in TL (by droplet digital PCR). The majority of differentially expressed genes showed higher expression levels in blasts of TL compared to DS-AML. They included genes encoding chemokines and related to IL1 and TGFb signaling.

Conclusions: The pathogenic sequence starting with TL and culminating in AML is uniquely initiated in children with DS by somatic mutation of GATA1. In contrast, the events associated with the transformation of TL to DS-AML resemble progression factors also found in non-DS AML. These progression events were not detectable even in minor subclones of TL suggesting they are acquired after the onset of TL.

This research was supported by funding from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute and Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.