Acquired aplastic anemia (aAA) is an acquired deficiency of early hematopoietic cells, characterized by inadequate blood production, and a predisposition to myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and leukemia. Although its exact pathogenesis is unknown, aAA is thought to be driven by Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA)-restricted T cell immunity, with earlier studies favoring HLA class II-mediated pathways. Using whole exome sequencing (WES), we recently identified two aAA patients with somatic mutations in HLA class I genes. We hypothesized that HLA class I mutations are pathognomonic for autoimmunity in aAA, but were previously underappreciated because the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) region is notoriously difficult to analyze by WES. Using a combination of targeted deep sequencing of HLA class I genes and single nucleotide polymorphism array (SNP-A) genotyping we screened 66 aAA patients for somatic HLA class I loss. We found somatic HLA loss in eleven patients (17%), with thirteen loss-of-function mutations in HLA-A*33:03, HLA-A*68:01, HLA-B*14:02 and HLA-B*40:02 alleles. Three patients had more than one mutation targeting the same HLA allele. Interestingly, HLA-B*14:02 and HLA-B*40:02 were significantly overrepresented in aAA patients, compared to ethnicity-matched controls. Patients who inherited the targeted HLA alleles, regardless of HLA mutation status, had a more severe disease course with more frequent clonal complications as assessed by WES, SNP-A, and metaphase cytogenetics, and more frequent secondary MDS. The finding of recurrent HLA class I mutations provides compelling evidence for a predominant HLA class I-driven autoimmunity in aAA, and establishes a novel link between aAA patients' immunogenetics and clonal evolution.
Keywords: HLA; aplastic anemia; autoimmunity; clonal hematopoiesis; myelodysplastic syndrome.