The recombination activating gene, RAG-1, which is supposed to encode a molecule regulating V(D)J recombination, has been isolated. In the current study, the distribution of RAG-1 expression in human neoplastic hematopoietic cells was compared with the phenotypic and genotypic status of differentiation. Thirty-one hematopoietic cell lines (16 B- lineage, 9 T-lineage, 2 Hodgkin's disease, and 4 nonlymphoid cell lines) were investigated for the expression of human RAG-1 using the reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). RAG-1 was not expressed in nonlymphoid, Hodgkin's disease, or mature-stage lymphoid cell lines, but was present in some acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)/lymphoblastic lymphoma (LBL) cell lines. The investigation was extended to 45 cases of fresh ALL/LBL cells. The patterns of RAG-1 expression found in the cell lines and fresh ALL/LBL cells were similar. In B-lineage cells, the product of RAG-1 RT-PCR was detected in CD19+ CD10- CD20- CD5- stage (stage II, Nadler's classification) and was at the highest level in CD19+ CD10+ CD20- CD5- stage (stage III), but was absent or limited in CD19+ CD10+ CD20-+ CD5- (stage IV) or CD19+ CD10+ (or CD10-) CD5+. In stage II, monoclonal gene rearrangements of only the immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgH) were found, whereas monoclonal gene rearrangements of both IgH and T-cell receptor (TCR)-beta chain were frequently noted in stages III and IV. The expression of CD20 or CD5 antigen apparently correlated with the decline of RAG-1 expression. In T-lineage cells, RAG-1 was highly expressed in CD3- CD4+ CD8+/CD3+ CD4+ CD8+ thymic stages, but was negative or only weakly expressed in the CD3- CD4- CD8- prothymic or early thymic stage, in which the TCR-beta gene was often germline, or the CD3+ CD4+ CD8- mature thymic stage. The relative levels of RAG-1 mRNA give an additional delineating frame to the schemes of lymphoid differentiation based on phenotypic and genotypic status. RAG-1 is exhibited by cells of the thymic stage capable of synthesizing TCR or expressing it on the cell surface. The weak or absent expression of RAG- 1 in the prothymic or early thymic stage suggests that the contribution of RAG-1 to the gene rearrangement may differ quantitatively between TCR-delta/TCR-gamma and TCR-beta.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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