In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), clonal rearrangement of the immunoglobulin heavy chain locus (IgH) provides a useful marker for the detection of minimal residual disease (MRD) after treatment. At the time of initial presentation, DNA from patients with CLL was polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-amplified using consensus Variable (VH) and Joining (JH) region primers using complementarity determining region III consensus region primers or a panel of VH family-specific framework region 1 (FR1) primers. The clonal product was directly sequenced and patient-specific probes constructed using N region nucleotide sequences. We amplified and sequenced the CDRIII region and designed patient specific oligonucleotide probes for the detection of MRD in 55 of 66 patients (84%, 90% Confidence Intervals (CI): 74% to 90%) with poor prognosis CLL referred for autologous and allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT). To determine the clinical utility of this technique, PCR amplification was performed on patient samples at the time of and following autologous (21 patients) and allogeneic (10 patients) BMT in whom serial bone marrow samples obtained after BMT were available for analysis. We show that the persistence of MRD after BMT is associated with increased probability of relapse. In all cases that have relapsed to date, the IgH CDRII region was identical at the time of initial presentation and at relapse suggesting that clonal evolution of the IgH locus is unusual in this disease. The finding that a significant number of patients remain disease free and with no evidence of PCR-detectable MRD after BMT suggests that high-dose therapy may contribute to improved outcome in selected patients with CLL.

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