A hotspot mutation within the DNA-binding domain of IKZF3 (IKZF3-L162R) has been identified as a putative driver in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL); however, its functional effects are unknown. We recently confirmed its role as a CLL driver in a B cell-restricted conditional knock-in model. IKZF3 mutation altered mature B cell development and signaling capacity, and induced CLL-like disease in elderly mice (~40% penetrance). Moreover, we found IKZF3-L162R acts as a gain-of-function mutation, altering DNA binding specificity and target selection of IKZF3, and resulting in overexpression of multiple B-cell receptor (BCR) genes. Consistent with the murine data, RNA-sequencing analysis showed that human CLL cells with mut-IKZF3 [n=4] have an enhanced signature of BCR-signaling gene expression compared to WT-IKZF3 [n=6, all IGHV unmutated] (p<0.001), and also exhibited general upregulation of key BCR-signaling regulators. These results confirm the role of IKZF3 as a master regulator of BCR-signaling gene expression, with the mutation contributing to overexpression of these genes.

While mutation in IKZF3 has a clear functional impact on a cardinal CLL-associated pathway, such as BCR signaling, we note that this driver occurs only at low frequency in patients (~3%). Because somatic mutation represents but one mechanism by which a driver can alter a cellular pathway, we examined whether aberrant expression of IKZF3 could also yield differences in BCR-signaling gene expression. We have observed expression of the IKZF3 gene to be variably dysregulated amongst CLL patients through re-analysis of transcriptomic data from two independent cohorts of human CLL (DFCI, Landau et al., 2014; ICGC, Ferreira et al., 2014). We thus examined IKZF3 expression and BCR-signaling gene expression, or the 'BCR score' (calculated as the mean expression of 75 BCR signaling-associate genes) in those cohorts (DFCI cohort, n=107; ICGC cohort, n=274). Strikingly, CLL cells with higher IKZF3 expression (defined as greater than median expression) had higher BCR scores than those with lower IKZF3 expression (<median) (p=0.0015 and p<0.0001, respectively). These findings were consistent with the notion that IKZF3 may act as a broad regulator of BCR signaling genes, and that IKZF3 overexpression, like IKZF3 mutation, may provide fitness advantage. In support of this notion, our re-analysis of a gene expression dataset of 107 CLL samples (Herold Leukemia 2011) revealed that higher IKZF3 expression associated with poorer prognosis and worse overall survival (P=0.035).

We previously reported that CLL cells with IKZF3 mutation appeared to increase in cancer cell fraction (CCF) with resistance to fludarabine-based chemotherapy (Landau Nature 2015). Instances of increase in mut-IKZF3 CCF upon treatment with the BCR-signaling inhibitor ibrutinib have been reported (Ahn ASH 2019). These studies together suggest an association of IKZF3 mutation with increased cellular survival following either chemotherapy or targeted treatment. To examine whether higher expression of IKZF3 was associated with altered sensitivity to ibrutinib, we performed scRNA-seq analysis (10x Genomics) of two previously treatment-naïve patients undergoing ibrutinib therapy (paired samples, baseline vs. Day 220). We analyzed an average of 11,080 cells per patient (2000 genes/cell). Of note, following ibrutinib treatment, remaining CLL cells expressed higher levels of IKZF3 transcript compared to pretreatment baseline (both p<0.0001), whereas no such change was observed in matched T cells (n ranging between 62 to 652 per experimental group, p>0.05), suggesting that cells with high expression of IKZF3 were selected by ibrutinib treatment. Moreover, we showed that ibrutinib treatment resulted in consistent upregulation of BCR-signaling genes (e.g., CD79B, LYN, GRB2, FOS, RAC1, PRKCB and NFKBIA) (n ranging between 362 to 1374 per experimental group, all p<0.0001), which were likewise activated by mutant IKZF3.

Altogether, these data imply that IKZF3 mutation or overexpression may influence upregulation of BCR-signaling genes and enhance cellular fitness even during treatment with BCR-signaling inhibitors. We highlight our observation that IKZF3 mutation appears to be phenocopied by elevated IKZF3 expression, and suggest that alterations in mRNA or protein level that mimic genetic mutations could be widespread in human cancers.


Kipps:Pharmacyclics/ AbbVie, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Oncternal Therapeutics, Inc., Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) - The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM): Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding, Speakers Bureau; Celgene: Honoraria, Research Funding; Gilead: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Speakers Bureau; Genentech/Roche: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Speakers Bureau; VelosBio: Research Funding; Oncternal Therapeutics, Inc.: Other: Cirmtuzumab was developed by Thomas J. Kipps in the Thomas J. Kipps laboratory and licensed by the University of California to Oncternal Therapeutics, Inc., which provided stock options and research funding to the Thomas J. Kipps laboratory, Research Funding; Ascerta/AstraZeneca, Celgene, Genentech/F. Hoffmann-La Roche, Gilead, Janssen, Loxo Oncology, Octernal Therapeutics, Pharmacyclics/AbbVie, TG Therapeutics, VelosBio, and Verastem: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Wu:BionTech: Current equity holder in publicly-traded company; Pharmacyclics: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.