Ambiguous phenotypes and genotypes were observed in 16 children with acute leukemia. Surface marker, cytogenetic, molecular genetic, and DNA flow cytometric analyses as well as standard morphologic and cytochemical studies were used to divide the patients into three groups. The first group comprised five children with acute leukemia whose blast cells were morphologically lymphoid, while immunophenotyping disclosed simultaneous expression of early pre-B cell and myeloid features. Molecular genetic studies showed evidence of heavy-chain immunoglobulin (Ig) gene rearrangements in all patients. Cytogenetic data, available in three of these children, revealed t(4;11). In five of the 16 patients, morphologic and surface marker analyses indicated the coexistence of two separate cell populations, one with myeloid and the other with early pre-B cell features. Further evidence of B cell commitment in these patients was provided by demonstration of Ig heavy-chain gene rearrangements in all five patients. Surprisingly, one of the five patients showed oligoclonal Ig heavy-chain as well as monoclonal gene rearrangement for the beta chain of the T cell receptor (beta-TCR). The last group consisted of four cases with otherwise typical acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), early pre-B cell phenotype, and coexpression of myeloid or T cell-associated antigens, and two children with unequivocal acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and coexpression of T cell antigens. Gene rearrangement of Ig heavy-chain could be demonstrated in five of six patients, additional Ig light-chain gene rearrangement in two children with ALL, and bigenotypic features (Ig heavy-chain and beta-TCR gene rearrangement) in one patient. In none of the 16 patients did flow cytometry disclose clonal abnormalities of leukemic cell DNA content. Based on these findings, we suggest that malignant transformation in the first and second group of patients took place at a stage ontogenetically close to the pluripotent stem cell, whereas ambiguous phenotypes in the third group resulted from aberrant gene expression or insufficient reagent specificity.

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