Genetic events associated with venetoclax resistance in CLL identified by whole-exome sequencing of patient samples

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Although BCL2 mutations are reported as later occurring events leading to venetoclax resistance, many other mechanisms of progression have been reported though remain poorly understood. Here, we analyze longitudinal tumor samples from 11 patients with disease progression while receiving venetoclax to characterize the clonal evolution of resistance. All patients tested showed increased in vitro resistance to venetoclax at the posttreatment time point. We found the previously described acquired BCL2-G101V mutation in only 4 of 11 patients, with 2 patients showing a very low variant allele fraction (0.03%-4.68%). Whole-exome sequencing revealed acquired loss(8p) in 4 of 11 patients, of which 2 patients also had gain (1q21.2-21.3) in the same cells affecting the MCL1 gene. In vitro experiments showed that CLL cells from the 4 patients with loss(8p) were more resistant to venetoclax than cells from those without it, with the cells from 2 patients also carrying gain (1q21.2-21.3) showing increased sensitivity to MCL1 inhibition. Progression samples with gain (1q21.2-21.3) were more susceptible to the combination of MCL1 inhibitor and venetoclax. Differential gene expression analysis comparing bulk RNA sequencing data from pretreatment and progression time points of all patients showed upregulation of proliferation, B-cell receptor (BCR), and NF-κB gene sets including MAPK genes. Cells from progression time points demonstrated upregulation of surface immunoglobulin M and higher pERK levels compared with those from the preprogression time point, suggesting an upregulation of BCR signaling that activates the MAPK pathway. Overall, our data suggest several mechanisms of acquired resistance to venetoclax in CLL that could pave the way for rationally designed combination treatments for patients with venetoclax-resistant CLL.