Adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL) is a peripheral T-cell neoplasm of largely unknown genetic basis, which is associated with human T-cell leukemia virus type-1 (HTLV-1) infection. To delineate a genetic landscape of somatic alterations in ATL, we have performed an integrated genetic study, in which whole-genome/exome (WGS/WES) and transcriptome sequencing (RNA-seq) was performed for a cohort of 83 paired ATL samples, followed by extensive validation using targeted sequencing of detected mutations in 370 follow-up samples.

A striking feature of driver lesions in ATL was their strong enrichment in the components of T-cell receptor (TCR) / NF-κB pathway. Accounting for more than 90% of ATL cases, these lesions were characterized by the predominance of activating alterations, including hotspot missense mutations in PLCG1 (36%), PRKCB (33%), CARD11 (24%), VAV1 (18%), IRF4 (14%) and FYN (4%). Among these, most frequently mutated was PLCG1, which encodes phospholipase C γ1 (PLCγ1), a key regulator of the proximal TCR signaling. Besides the S345F and S520F mutations recently reported in cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, we identified an additional hotspot mutations (R48W, E1163K, and D1165H).

The second most frequently mutated gene was PRKCB, encoding a member of the protein kinase C (PKC) family of proteins (PKCβ), a pivotal signaling molecule downstream of PLCγ. The frequent mutations of PKCβ were unexpected, because it is PKCθ that has been implicated in TCR signaling, whereas PKCβ has been more focused in the context of B-cell receptor signaling. Approximately 93% of the PRKCB mutations were confined to the catalytic domain with a prominent hotspot at D427, suggesting gain-of-function nature of these mutations. Consistent with this, when transduced with the D427N PKCβ mutant, HEK293T and/or Jurkat cells showed increased membrane translocation after PMA/Ionomycin-stimulation, enhanced IKK phosphorylation and p65 nuclear translocation, and augmented NF-κB transcription, compared to wild-type PKCβ-transduced cells. Thus, these PRKCB mutations are the first activating mutations of this family identified in human cancers.

Downstream to PKC lies CARD11, a scaffolding protein required for antigen receptor-induced NF-κB activation. Although previously reported in B-cell lymphomas, CARD11 mutations were more common in ATL (24%). In B-cell lymphomas, mutations are largely limited to the coiled-coil (CC) domain, whereas in ATL, they were clustered not only within the CC domain, but also within the PKC-responsive inhibitory domain, showing a prominent mutational hotspot at E626. The inhibitory domain has been implicated in autoinhibition, whose deletion leads to constitutive activation of CARD11. Intriguingly, WGS identified small intragenic deletions confined to this domain (exons 14-17) in 4 cases (8%) without canonical mutations, and RNA-seq confirmed the skipping of the corresponding exons in these cases. Remarkably, CARD11 mutation significantly co-occurred with PRKCBmutations, suggesting potential functional synergism between these lesions. Actually, overexpression of wild-type CARD11 induced NF-κB activation, which was further augmented by E626K mutation. Similarly, when both CARD11 (E626K) and PRKCB (D427N) mutants were co-expressed, more enhanced NF-κB activation was observed.

RNA-seq and follow-up RT-PCR screening also identified novel gene fusions in TCR / NF-κB pathway: five CTLA4-CD28 and three ICOS-CD28 fusions were observed in seven (7%) of the 105 cases examined, of whom one patient carried both chimeric fusions. WGS revealed tandem duplications of 2q33.2 segments containing CD28, CTLA4, and ICOS, compatible with the corresponding fusion transcripts. B7/CD28 co-signaling molecules, including CD28, CTLA4, and ICOS co-receptors, play pivotal roles in positive and negative regulations of TCR signaling. All the predicted chimeric proteins had the cytoplasmic part of CD28, and are expected to be expressed under the control of the regulatory element of CTLA4 or ICOS, likely leading to prolonged expression of CD28 co-stimulator.

Our findings suggest that deregulated TCR / NF-κB pathway caused by genetic alterations is a hallmark of ATL pathogenesis. The predominance of gain-of-function mutations in this pathway offers good opportunities for exploiting these mutations for the targets of novel drugs to better manage patients.


Tobinai:Gilead Sciences: Research Funding. Miyazaki:Sumitomo Dainippon: Honoraria; Celgene Japan: Honoraria; Chugai: Honoraria, Research Funding; Shin-bio: Honoraria; Kyowa-Kirin: Honoraria, Research Funding. Watanabe:Daiichi Sankyo Co., Ltd.: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.