Autonomous, factor-independent growth and differentiation of malignant cells in preleukemic and leukemic disease states is a well-recognized phenomenon and is often associated with a poor prognosis. Mast cells are distinct hematopoietic cells and express a unique profile of antigens. Growth and differentiation of normal mast cells is dependent on mast cell growth factor (MGF), the ligand of the c-kit protooncogene product. In this study, we screened for mast cell-lineage involvement in 52 patients suffering from myeloid leukemias, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), systemic mastocytosis, or other diseases by probing for mast cell-related molecules (c-kit, tryptase, histamine, and MGF) and by analyzing kit ligand/MGF-independent growth of mast cells in long-term suspension culture. Of the 52 patients tested, 2 patients with refractory anemia with excess of blast cells in transformation and 1 patient suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia blast crisis (CML-BC) were diagnosed as mastocytic disease. These patients were characterized by complex chromosomal abnormalities, splenomegaly, high percentages of circulating metachromatic cells (5% to 25%), high levels of cellular tryptase (> 10 ng/10(5) peripheral blood mononuclear cells/mL) and a tryptase/histamine (ng:ng) ratio greater than 1. The metachromatic cells expressed the mast-cell-related surface antigen c-kit, but not basophil-related antigens (CD11b, CDw17). Furthermore, in these 3 patients, spontaneous, MGF-independent growth of mast cells along with spontaneous synthesis of tryptase was demonstrable in long-term culture. No autocrine production, paracrine production, or overproduction of MGF was found. The spontaneous growth of mast cells could neither be abbrogated by addition of monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) to c-kit nor by MoAbs against MGF (< 5% inhibition), whereas factor (MGF)-dependent differentiation of mast cells in these patients could be abbrogated by MoAbs to c-kit or MoAbs to MGF (> 70% inhibition, P < .001). In addition, serum MGF levels in these patients were within the normal range and MGF could not be detected in cell-free culture supernatants. All 3 patients showed rapid progression of disease and had a survival time of less than 1 year. In conclusion, we describe a unique form of transformation in MDS and CML-BC characterized by mast cell lineage involvement and factor-independent differentiation of mast cells. This form of leukemic transformation has to be delineated from chronic myeloid leukemia with basophilia or basophil crisis, from primary mast cell leukemia, and from monocytic leukemias and myelodysplastic disorders associated with basophilia.

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