Introduction: B-cell receptor (BCR) signaling is crucial for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) biology. IGLV3-21-expressing B-cells may acquire a single point mutation (R110) that triggers autonomous BCR signaling conferring aggressive behavior. Epigenetic studies have defined three CLL subtypes based on methylation signatures reminiscent of pre- and post-germinal center B-cells named naïve-like (n-CLL), intermediate (i-CLL) and memory-like CLL (m-CLL) with different biological features. i-CLL carry a borderline IGHV mutational load and a significant higher usage of IGHV3-21/IGLV3-21. The integration of these factors might translate into novel insights in CLL pathogenesis with implications on the proposed stratification of the patients.

Aim: To determine the clinical and biological features of the IGLV3-21R110 in CLL in the light of the epigenetic subtypes and immunogenetic, genomic and transcriptomic landscapes of the tumors.

Methods: We characterized the immunoglobulin (IG) gene of 584 CLL cases from whole-genome/exome and RNA sequencing using our recently developed algorithm IgCaller (Nadeu et al., Nat. Commun. 2020) and MiXCR, respectively. The genomic makeup of the tumors was obtained from whole-genome/exome sequencing while RNA sequencing data for 369 cases was used for gene expression analyses. Expression levels of WNT5A and WNT5B were verified by quantitative PCR with reverse transcriptase. Primary end points were time to first treatment (TTFT) and overall survival (OS) calculated from the date of diagnosis. All patients gave written informed consent. The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.

Results: The IGLV3-21R110 was detected in 6.5% of cases being similarly distributed between mutated (6.5%) and unmutated (6.6%) IGHV cases (P=0.56). In contrast, the IGLV3-21R110 was found in 30/79 (38%) i-CLL compared to only 5/291 (1.7%) m-CLL and 1/189 (0.5%) n-CLL (P<0.001). All stereotyped subset #2 cases carried IGLV3-21R110 while 62% of IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL had non-stereotyped IG genes. IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL had a borderline IGHV mutational status (median 97.7%) that was higher than i-CLL lacking the IGLV3-21R110 (median 96.2%, P=0.005). IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL had significantly higher number of SF3B1 and ATM mutations, and total number of driver alterations. Nonetheless, the R110 mutation was the sole alteration in one i-CLL case and accompanied only by del(13q) in three.

Although composite regarding IGHV mutational status, IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL transcriptomically resembled naïve-like/unmutated IGHV CLL and had a specific expression signature of 64 genes with overexpression of WNT5A and WNT5B as hallmarks. No differences were observed in the expression profile of subset #2 and non-subset #2 IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL tumors. On the other hand, i-CLL lacking the IGLV3-21R110 phenotypically mirrored memory-like/mutated IGHV cases.

In relation to prognosis, IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL had a short TTFT and OS similar to n-CLL/unmutated IGHV cases whereas non-IGLV3-21R110 i-CLL had a good prognosis similar to memory-like/mutated IGHV. Therefore, i-CLL cases, which have been associated with an intermediate prognosis between m-CLL and n-CLL in previous studies, can be divided in two subgroups of cases with opposed clinical evolutions based on the IGLV3-21R110. Indeed, the IGLV3-21R110 and n-CLL subtype retained independent prognostic value in multivariate analyses while the i-CLL lost its prognostic prediction both for TTFT and OS. The prognostic value of the IGLV3-21R110 was also independent of the IGHV mutational status. In terms of applicability in the clinics, all n-CLL cases were classified as unmutated IGHV and 98% of m-CLL were mutated IGHV. Thus, either a complete IG characterization (IGHV mutational status and IGLV3-21R110) or the integration of the n-CLL subtype and IGLV3-21R110 identified virtually the same subset of patients with aggressive disease.

Conclusions: The IGLV3-21R110 defines a CLL subset with borderline IGHV mutations, specific driver alterations, a gene expression signature including WNT5A/B overexpression, and an unfavorable prognosis independent of the IGHV mutational status and epigenetic subtypes. Our findings support the identification of IGLV3-21R110 CLL as a particular subgroup of the disease with relevance in the risk stratification of the patients.


Nadeu:Janssen: Honoraria. Campo:NIH: Consultancy, Other: Co-inventor on a patent related to the MCL35 assay filed at the National Institutes of Health, United States of America..

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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