Somatic hypermutation (SHM) features in a series of 1967 immunoglobulin heavy chain gene (IGH) rearrangements obtained from patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) were examined and compared with IGH sequences from non-CLL B cells available in public databases. SHM analysis was performed for all 1290 CLL sequences in this cohort with less than 100% identity to germ line. At the cohort level, SHM patterns were typical of a canonical SHM process. However, important differences emerged from the analysis of certain subgroups of CLL sequences defined by: (1) IGHV gene usage, (2) presence of stereotyped heavy chain complementarity-determining region 3 (HCDR3) sequences, and (3) mutational load. Recurrent, "stereotyped" amino acid changes occurred across the entire IGHV region in CLL subsets carrying stereotyped HCDR3 sequences, especially those expressing the IGHV3-21 and IGHV4-34 genes. These mutations are underrepresented among non-CLL sequences and thus can be considered as CLL-biased. Furthermore, it was shown that even a low level of mutations may be functionally relevant, given that stereotyped amino acid changes can be found in subsets of minimally mutated cases. The precise targeting and distinctive features of somatic hypermutation (SHM) in selected subgroups of CLL patients provide further evidence for selection by specific antigenic element(s).
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