Background: Cancers arise from multiple acquired mutations, which presumably occur over many years. Early stages in cancer development might be present years before cancers become clinically apparent.
Methods: We analyzed data from whole-exome sequencing of DNA in peripheral-blood cells from 12,380 persons, unselected for cancer or hematologic phenotypes. We identified somatic mutations on the basis of unusual allelic fractions. We used data from Swedish national patient registers to follow health outcomes for 2 to 7 years after DNA sampling.
Results: Clonal hematopoiesis with somatic mutations was observed in 10% of persons older than 65 years of age but in only 1% of those younger than 50 years of age. Detectable clonal expansions most frequently involved somatic mutations in three genes (DNMT3A, ASXL1, and TET2) that have previously been implicated in hematologic cancers. Clonal hematopoiesis was a strong risk factor for subsequent hematologic cancer (hazard ratio, 12.9; 95% confidence interval, 5.8 to 28.7). Approximately 42% of hematologic cancers in this cohort arose in persons who had clonality at the time of DNA sampling, more than 6 months before a first diagnosis of cancer. Analysis of bone marrow-biopsy specimens obtained from two patients at the time of diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia revealed that their cancers arose from the earlier clones.
Conclusions: Clonal hematopoiesis with somatic mutations is readily detected by means of DNA sequencing, is increasingly common as people age, and is associated with increased risks of hematologic cancer and death. A subset of the genes that are mutated in patients with myeloid cancers is frequently mutated in apparently healthy persons; these mutations may represent characteristic early events in the development of hematologic cancers. (Funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute and others.).