Bruton's tyrosine kinase (BTK) deficiency results in a differentiation block at the pre-B cell stage. Likewise, acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells are typically arrested at early stages of B cell development. We therefore investigated BTK function in B cell precursor leukemia cells carrying a BCR-ABL1, E2A-PBX1, MLL-AF4, TEL-AML1, or TEL-PDGFRB gene rearrangement. Although somatic mutations of the BTK gene are rare in B cell precursor leukemia cells, we identified kinase-deficient splice variants of BTK throughout all leukemia subtypes. Unlike infant leukemia cells carrying an MLL-AF4 gene rearrangement, where expression of full-length BTK was detectable in only four of eight primary cases, in leukemia cells harboring other fusion genes full-length BTK was typically coexpressed with kinase-deficient variants. As shown by overexpression experiments, kinase-deficient splice variants can act as a dominant-negative BTK in that they suppress BTK-dependent differentiation and pre-B cell receptor responsiveness of the leukemia cells. On the other hand, induced expression of full-length BTK rendered the leukemia cells particularly sensitive to apoptosis. Comparing BTK expression in surviving or preapoptotic leukemia cells after 10-Gy γ radiation, we observed selective survival of leukemia cells that exhibit expression of dominant-negative BTK forms. These findings indicate that lack of BTK expression or expression of dominant-negative splice variants in B cell precursor leukemia cells can (i) inhibit differentiation beyond the pre-B cell stage and (ii) protect from radiation-induced apoptosis
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