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J Clin Invest. 1996 Jul 15;98(2):290-8.

IgM-producing chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells undergo immunoglobulin isotype-switching without acquiring somatic mutations.

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International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Area Science Park, Trieste, Italy.


The malignant B cells in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) typically express low-density membrane IgM or IgM/IgD. In vitro experiments have shown that the CLL cells can be induced to differentiate into cells that secrete immunoglobulin (Ig) and can occasionally undergo heavy (H) chain class switching. We now show that the CLL cells also undergo isotype-switching in vivo, since gamma and/or alpha H chain transcripts with identical FW3/CDR3/FW4 regions as the mu CLL transcripts were detected in all of the 13 investigated patients with IgM+ CLL. In most cases switching had occurred to alpha1 and gamma3, but CLL transcripts corresponding to the other gamma chain isotypes were also detected. In one case both the productively and nonproductively rearranged allele were found to undergo H chain class switching. CLL gamma transcripts were also present in surface IgG+ sorted B cells, demonstrating that a small subset of the CLL cells express membrane IgG. In addition, transcripts encoding secretary gamma2 and gamma3 H chains were detected in two cases, which suggests that some serum IgG could be produced by the leukemic clone. Analysis of sorted PBL showed that isotype-switching occurs in CLL cells that express the CD5 antigen. Finally, nucleotide sequence analysis showed that the mu, alpha, and gamma CLL transcripts are identical, demonstrating that the CLL cells do not accumulate somatic mutations in their variable region genes after the H chain class switching. These data provide in vivo evidence that isotype-switching is a frequent phenomenon in CLL, and indicate that a subset of the CLL lymphocytes progress to later stages of B cell differentiation.

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