Understanding the molecular and phenotypic heterogeneity of cancer is a prerequisite for effective treatment. For chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), recurrent genetic driver events have been extensively cataloged, but this does not suffice to explain the disease’s diverse course. Here, we performed RNA-sequencing on 184 CLL patient samples. Unsupervised analysis revealed two major, orthogonal axes of gene expression variation: the first one represented the mutational status of the immunoglobulin heavy variable (IGHV) genes, and concomitantly, the three-group stratification of CLL by global DNA methylation. The second axis aligned with trisomy 12 status and affected chemokine, MAPK and mTOR signaling. We discovered nonadditive effects (epistasis) of IGHV mutation status and trisomy 12 on multiple phenotypes, including the expression of 893 genes. Multiple types of epistasis were observed, including synergy, buffering, suppression and inversion, suggesting that molecular understanding of disease heterogeneity requires studying such genetic events not only individually but in combination. We detected strong differentially expressed gene signatures associated with major gene mutations and copy-number aberrations including SF3B1, BRAF and TP53, as well as del(17)(p13), del(13)(q14) and del(11)(q22.3) beyond dosage effect. Our study reveals previously underappreciated gene expression signatures for the major molecular subtypes in CLL and the presence of epistasis between them.
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