Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) usually involves the expansion of a clone of CD5+ B cells synthesizing IgM antibodies. These B cells appear to be blocked at the antigen receptor-expressing stage of B cell differentiation and are thought not to undergo an isotype class switch to IgG or IgA production. In vivo and in vitro studies suggest, however, that in some instances terminal differentiation and isotype switching can occur. To test the hypothesis that in vivo isotype class switching occurs in IgM+ B-type CLL cells, we analyzed the PBMC of 19 CLL patients for the presence of transcripts encoding the rearranged CLL V(H)DJ(II) associated with either γ or α H chains. The molecular data indicate that ~50% of B-CLL patients have amplifications of IgM+ B cells that undergo an isotype class switch. Switching to IgA appears to occur more often than to IgG; also, switching can involve different IgG subclasses in individual patients. In many instances, these CLL-related γ and α transcripts are much more plentiful than those of normal B cells that produce the same isotype. These switched transcripts do not reveal evidence for the accumulation of significant numbers of new V(H) gene mutations. The cellular data indicate that B cells with lesser amounts of surface membrane IgD and higher IgM/IgD ratios are more likely to undergo this switching process. Furthermore, B cells expressing IgG and IgA of the same idiotype or V(H) family and the same CDR3 length as those of the CLL IgM+ clone can be identified in the blood of patients studied using multiparameter immunofluorescence analyses. Collectively, these data suggest that not all members of a B-CLL clone are frozen at the surface membrane Ig- expressing stage of B cell maturation, and that some members can switch to the production of non-IgM isotypes. The occurrence of switching without the accumulation of V gene mutations indicates that the processes of differentiation and diversification are not linked.
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