Introduction: Targeted irreversible Bruton's Tyrosine Kinase (BTK) inhibitors ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, have revolutionized treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). While BTK inhibition (BTKi) achieves durable responses in 90% of patients, only 10% achieve minimal residual disease (MRD) negative status. MRD positive patients have persistent residual CD5+CD19+ tumor B cells at approximately 1-5 /mm3 in peripheral blood. These cells may represent a subpopulation of B-cell lymphocytosis pre-malignant cells or may carry a BTK C481, PLCG2, or other CLL mutation that is ultimately responsible for disease relapse. Alternatively, MRD could be derived from the original clones present at initial disease presentation that are not dependent on BTK signaling. Readily available clinical DNA sequencing and MRD monitoring techniques lack the ability to characterize these cells adequately due to their rarity in peripheral blood. To address this problem, we developed a novel method for limited-cells using fluorescence activated cell sorting in tandem with next generation sequencing (LC-FACSeq) to characterize rare tumor subpopulations in the blood and bone marrow. LC-FACSeq may be useful not only for CLL but also other leukemias.

Methods: LC-FACSeq uses fluorescent activated cell sorting (FACS) to isolate pure populations of rare tumor cells after which targeted deep sequencing is performed to monitor CLL-related mutations in NOTCH1, SF3B1, and TP53, as well as genes associated with BTKi relapse and resistance: BTK and PLCG2. For validation of this method, we generated libraries from DNA isolated from FACS isolated bulk (n >15000) versus n= 50, 100, 300, or 500 CD5+/CD19+ cells from CLL patients (n=5).

Results: All samples analyzed had an average read depth of 1212 (SEM=56) per gene and an average coverage uniformity of 88.24% (SEM=.01). We show that showed that 300-cell LC-FACSeq libraries demonstrated comparable variant calling and minimal noise to standard libraries generated from purified DNA from bulk cells. Using samples from patients with previously identified BTK C481S mutations, we found that both sensitivity and specificity of LC-FACSeq for BTK C481S was 100%. Furthermore, LC-FACSeq reliably amplified BTK C481S signals from subclones as small as 6 in 300 total cells (2%) when mutated tumor cells were serially diluted into BTK wild type tumor cells. In using LC-FACSeq to retrospectively analyze four independent patients who developed Ibrutinib resistance, we found that we could see the emergence of small BTKi resistant subclones as early as 10 months before clinical detection. We next extended LC-FACSeq to examine the clonal architecture of long-term (> 12 months) ibrutinib-treated MRD positive patients. Median treatment time was 5 years. BTK C481S mutations were observed in the latest available on-treatment samples of only one patient. Using LC-FACSeq we observed canonical CLL-associated clonal mutations similar to those observed in previous studies. Of the 14 MRD positive patients, 7 showed subclonal changes in TP53, NOTCH1, POT1, SF3B1, and MYD88 over the course of ibrutinib treatment although we found no correlation or consensus in these clonal shifts.

Conclusion: LC-FACSeq is a highly sensitive method of characterizing clonal evolution in rare cells. Our data shows that LC-FACSeq is useful for monitoring sequential acquisition of mutations conferring therapy resistance and clonal evolution in long-term ibrutinib treated chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients. We also observe that in most cases, MRD clones after long-term ibrutinib treatment are genetically similar to disease clones from pretreatment baseline. Compared to current MRD monitoring strategies, the main advantages of LC-FACSeq are that 1) variants can be confidently called from rare sorted tumor populations and subpopulations, 2) library generation can be completed in less than a day in a diagnostic laboratory compared to the labor-intensive protocols of traditional NGS approaches, and 3) amplicon panels can be easily customized for application to other types of leukemia and lymphoma.

(EH is supported by the Graduate Pelotonia Fellowship and the NIH F30)

Disclosures

Bhat:Janssen: Consultancy; Pharmacyclics: Consultancy. Rogers:Janssen: Research Funding; AbbVie: Research Funding; Genentech: Research Funding; Acerta Pharma: Consultancy. Woyach:AbbVie: Research Funding; Janssen: Consultancy, Research Funding; Pharmacyclics LLC, an AbbVie Company: Consultancy, Research Funding; Karyopharm: Research Funding; Loxo: Research Funding; Morphosys: Research Funding; Verastem: Research Funding. Lozanski:Beckman Coulter: Research Funding; Stemline Therapeutics Inc.: Research Funding; Genentec: Research Funding; Boehringer Ingelheim: Research Funding. Muthusamy:Ohio State University: Patents & Royalties: OSU-2S. Byrd:Novartis: Other: Travel Expenses, Speakers Bureau; TG Therapeutics: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; BeiGene: Research Funding; Ohio State University: Patents & Royalties: OSU-2S; Janssen: Consultancy, Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Gilead: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Ohio State University: Patents & Royalties: OSU-2S; Gilead: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Pharmacyclics LLC, an AbbVie Company: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Novartis: Other: Travel Expenses, Speakers Bureau; Pharmacyclics LLC, an AbbVie Company: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; TG Therapeutics: Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Acerta: Research Funding; BeiGene: Research Funding; Janssen: Consultancy, Other: Travel Expenses, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Genentech: Research Funding; Genentech: Research Funding; Acerta: Research Funding.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.