Multiple myeloma is a B cell malignancy characterized by the expansion of plasma cells producing monoclonal immunoglobulins (Ig). It has been regarded as a tumor arising at the B, pre-B lymphocyte, or even stem cell level. Precursor cells are presumed to proliferate and differentiate giving rise to the plasma cell clonal expansion. Antigenic features and specific Ig gene rearrangement shared by B lymphocytes and myeloma cells have supported this hypothesis. However, the existence of such a precursor is based upon indirect evidence and is still an open question. During differentiation, B cells rearrange variable (V) regions of Ig heavy chain genes, providing a specific marker of clonality. Using an anchor polymerase chain reaction assay, these rearranged regions from five patients with multiple myeloma were cloned and sequenced. The switch of the Ig constant (C) region was used to define the B cell differentiation stage: V regions are linked to C mu genes in pre-B and B lymphocytes (pre-switch B cells), but to C gamma or C alpha in post-switch B lymphocytes and plasma cells (post-switch B cells). Analysis of bone marrow cells at diagnosis revealed the presence of pre-switch B cells bearing plasma cell V regions still joined to the C mu gene. These cells were not identified in peripheral blood, where tumor post-switch B cells were detected. These pre-switch B cells may be regarded as potential myeloma cell precursors.

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