Clinical application of whole transcriptome sequencing for the classification of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia

BMC Cancer. 2021 Aug 2;21(1):886. doi: 10.1186/s12885-021-08635-5.


Background: Considering the clinical and genetic characteristics, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a rather heterogeneous hematological neoplasm for which current standard diagnostics require various analyses encompassing morphology, immunophenotyping, cytogenetics, and molecular analysis of gene fusions and mutations. Hence, it would be desirable to rely on a technique and an analytical workflow that allows the simultaneous analysis and identification of all the genetic alterations in a single approach. Moreover, based on the results with standard methods, a significant amount of patients have no established abnormalities and hence, cannot further be stratified.

Methods: We performed WTS and WGS in 279 acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients (B-cell: n = 211; T-cell: n = 68) to assess the accuracy of WTS, to detect relevant genetic markers, and to classify ALL patients.

Results: DNA and RNA-based genotyping was used to ensure correct WTS-WGS pairing. Gene expression analysis reliably assigned samples to the B Cell Precursor (BCP)-ALL or the T-ALL group. Subclassification of BCP-ALL samples was done progressively, assessing first the presence of chromosomal rearrangements by the means of fusion detection. Compared to the standard methods, 97% of the recurrent risk-stratifying fusions could be identified by WTS, assigning 76 samples to their respective entities. Additionally, read-through fusions (indicative of CDKN2A and RB1 gene deletions) were recurrently detected in the cohort along with 57 putative novel fusions, with yet untouched diagnostic potentials. Next, copy number variations were inferred from WTS data to identify relevant ploidy groups, classifying an additional of 31 samples. Lastly, gene expression profiling detected a BCR-ABL1-like signature in 27% of the remaining samples.

Conclusion: As a single assay, WTS allowed a precise genetic classification for the majority of BCP-ALL patients, and is superior to conventional methods in the cases which lack entity defining genetic abnormalities.

Keywords: Fusion transcript calling; Gene expression profiling; Patient classification; Whole transcriptome sequencing.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Comparative Genomic Hybridization
  • Computational Biology
  • Cytogenetic Analysis
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Exome Sequencing*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling*
  • Gene Rearrangement
  • Histocytochemistry / methods
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping / methods
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oncogene Proteins, Fusion / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / diagnosis
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / genetics*
  • Transcriptome*
  • Young Adult


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Oncogene Proteins, Fusion