Classical Hodgkin lymphoma (cHL) is composed of rare malignant Hodgkin Reed Sternberg (HRS) cells within an extensive, but ineffective, inflammatory/immune cell infiltrate. Emerging data suggests that cHLs use multiple genetic mechanisms to evade immune recognition. We previously found that HRS cells exhibit near-universal somatic copy number alterations (SCNAs) involving chromosome 9p24.1/PD-1-L1/PD-L2 and rare chromosomal rearrangements of PD-L1 or PD-L2. The 9p24.1 amplicon also includes JAK2, which increases JAK2 copy numbers, augments JAK2/STAT signaling and further induces PD-1 ligand expression.

However, HRS cells also have inactivating mutations of B2M and decreased or absent MHC class I expression. In cHL, clinical responses to PD-1 blockade are unrelated to HRS cell expression of MHC class I but closely associated with HRS cell expression of MHC class II, highlighting the potential role of CD4+ T-cell effectors (J Clin Oncol 2018;36:942-50). To define genetic bases of response and resistance to PD-1 blockade and identify complementary treatment targets, we performed whole exome sequencing (WES) of HRS cells.

We first used a previously described multi-color flow cytometric sorting protocol (Methods 2012; 57:368-75) to obtain highly purified CD30+ HRS cells and normal B cells from the excisional biopsies of 25 newly diagnosed cHLs. The isolated HRS cells and paired normal B cells were then subjected to WES using an optimized workflow for low input samples and an expanded bait set to capture structural variants (SVs). We used established analytical pipelines to identify significantly mutated genes (candidate cancer genes [CCGs], MutSig2CV), SCNAs (GISTIC2.0) and SVs (4 algorithms).

With improved methodology and purity (median of 80%) of the isolated HRS cells, we defined 15 significantly mutated CCGs, 21 recurrent SCNAs, including 6 CN gains (4 focal and 2 arm level) and 15 CN losses (14 focal and 1 arm level), and low frequency SVs.

We identified 2 cHLs as hypermutators with MSI signatures due to splice site mutations in MSH2 or missense mutations in POLE. Excluding the 2 hypermutators, the analyzed cHLs had a median mutational density of 6.4 mutations/Mb, that falls within the top quartile of reported cancer mutational frequencies (Nature 2013 499:214). We also identified a previously unappreciated high incidence of ARID1A mutations (24%) in cHL. This is noteworthy because ARID1A deficiency increases mutational load and augments the efficacy of PD-1 blockade in murine models (Nature Med 2018;24:556). Together, the observed MSI signatures, relatively high mutational burden and newly identified ARID1A mutations in cHL represent additional potential genetic bases for the efficacy of PD-1 blockade.

Notably, these cHLs also exhibited recurrent 9p24.1 copy gain (80%) and multiple genetic bases of enhanced JAK/STAT signaling including JAK2 copy gain (80%), STAT6 mutations (32%) involving known hotspots (D419 and N421) in the DNA-binding domain and frequent inactivating SOCS1 mutations (68%).

We also identified multiple genetic bases for immune evasion, including B2M inactivating mutations (36%), HLA-B mutations (16%) and 6p21.32/HLA-B copy loss (28%), copy loss of the larger 6p21.32 region and inactivating CIITA SVs (8%).

Additional signaling pathways were perturbed by multiple genetic mechanisms in these cHLs. For example, NF-κB pathway alterations included: TNFAIP3 mutations (24%) and 6q23.2/TNFAIP3 copy loss (56%), 12% biallelic; NFKBIE mutations (24%) and 6q21.32/NFKBIE copy loss (12%); and NFKBIA mutations (16%). The gene encoding the nuclear export protein, XPO1, was perturbed by E571K mutations (24%) and frequent 2p15/XPO1 copy gain (72%). Additionally, GNA13, an activator of RHOA and modifier of PI3K signaling, was mutated in 24% of cases.

Of interest, cHL recurrent alterations including B2M, TNFAIP3, STAT6, and GNA13 mutations and 6q23.2 and 9p24.1 SCNAs were also identified in > 20% of examined primary mediastinal B-cell lymphomas, highlighting shared pathogenetic mechanisms in these diseases. In summary, comprehensive genomic analyses of purified HRS cells reveal new genetic bases of immune evasion, potential mechanisms of response and resistance to PD-1 blockade and additional targetable alterations.

KW, BC, CS, AD and DW contributed equally. JF, GG and MS contributed equally.


Rodig:Affimed: Research Funding; KITE: Research Funding; Merck: Research Funding; Bristol Myers Squibb: Research Funding. Shipp:Merck: Research Funding; Bayer: Research Funding; Bristol-Myers Squibb: Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding; AstraZeneca: Honoraria.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.