Genomics of Hairy Cell Leukemia.
Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a chronic mature B-cell neoplasm with unique clinicopathologic features and an initial exquisite sensitivity to chemotherapy with purine analogs; however, the disease relapses, often repeatedly. The enigmatic pathogenesis of HCL was recently clarified by the discovery of its underlying genetic cause, the BRAF-V600E kinase-activating mutation, which is somatically and clonally present in almost all patients through the entire disease spectrum and clinical course. By aberrantly activating the RAF-MEK-ERK signaling pathway, BRAF-V600E shapes key biologic features of HCL, including its specific expression signature, hairy morphology, and antiapoptotic behavior. Accompanying mutations of the KLF2 transcription factor or the CDKN1B/p27 cell cycle inhibitor are recurrent in 16% of patients with HCL and likely cooperate with BRAF-V600E in HCL pathogenesis. Conversely, BRAF-V600E is absent in other B-cell neoplasms, including mimickers of HCL that require different treatments (eg, HCL-variant and splenic marginal zone lymphoma). Thus, testing for BRAF-V600E allows for a genetics-based differential diagnosis between HCL and HCL-like tumors, even noninvasively in routine blood samples. BRAF-V600E also represents a new therapeutic target. Patients' leukemic cells exposed ex vivo to BRAF inhibitors are spoiled of their HCL identity and then undergo apoptosis. In clinical trials of patients with HCL who have experienced multiple relapses after purine analogs or who are refractory to purine analogs, a short course of the oral BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib produced an almost 100% response rate, including complete remission rates of 35% to 42%, without myelotoxicity. To further improve on these results, it will be important to clarify the mechanisms of incomplete leukemic cell eradication by vemurafenib and to explore chemotherapy-free combinations of a BRAF inhibitor with other targeted agents (eg, a MEK inhibitor and/or an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody).
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