Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is characterized by the clonal expansion of CD5-expressing B lymphocytes. Most studies have found that these leukemic CD5+ B cells, like their normal counterparts, use immunoglobulin (Ig) variable (V) region genes that exhibit minimal, if any, somatic diversity. These and other observations have suggested that CD5+ B cells may be incapable of generating Ig V gene diversity, and therefore may not be able to develop higher affinity binding sites that could be selected by antigen. However, most of the studies of CLL and normal CD5+ B cells have focused on IgM-producing cells. Since somatic mutations are most often seen in B cells that have undergone an isotype class switch, we analyzed the Ig heavy (H) and light (L) chain variable region genes of seven IgG+CD5+ CLL B cells to determine if somatic diversification and antigen selection had occurred. The data derived provide evidence for skewed use, somatic diversification, and antigenic selection of the Ig V region genes. Nonrandom use of both H and L chain V region genes was manifested by an overrepresentation of VH4 and VKI family genes and the underrepresentation of the JH4 gene segment. Furthermore, VH4 gene use was restricted to only two family members (4.21 and 4.18). In four of the seven cases, the VH and VL genes displayed > or = 5% difference from the most homologous known germline counterparts. Polymerase chain reaction and Southern blot analyses performed in two of these patients demonstrated that their unique VH CDR2 and adjacent sequences were not present in their germline DNA. In addition, a significant level of diversity was seen in the rearranged DJH segments and at the VL-JL junctions of every patient that occurred both at the time of recombination and subsequently. The localization of replacement changes to complementarity determining regions of some patients suggested that antigen selection had occurred. Furthermore, the mutations identified in the VH and VL genes of each individual patient were strikingly similar, both in number and location. Collectively, the data indicate that a subset of CD5+ CLL B cells can display Ig V region gene mutations. In addition, they are consistent with the notions that in some cases antigen selection of these mutations may have occurred, and that antigen stimulation may be a promoting factor in the evolution of certain CLL clones.

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