Adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL) is a generally fatal malignancy. Most ATLL patients fare poorly with conventional chemotherapy; however, antiviral therapy with zidovudine (AZT) and interferon alpha (IFN-α) has produced long-term clinical remissions. We studied primary ATLL tumors and identified molecular features linked to sensitivity and resistance to antiviral therapy. Enhanced expression of the proto-oncogene c-Rel was noted in 9 of 27 tumors. Resistant tumors exhibited c-Rel (6 of 10; 60%) more often than did sensitive variants (1 of 9; 11%). This finding was independent of the disease form. Elevated expression of the putative c-Rel target, interferon regulatory factor-4 (IRF-4), was observed in 10 (91%) of 11 nonresponders and in all tested patients with c-Rel+ tumors and occurred in the absence of the HTLV-1 oncoprotein Tax. In contrast, tumors in complete responders did not express c-Rel or IRF-4. Gene rearrangement studies demonstrated the persistence of circulating T-cell clones in long-term survivors maintained on antiviral therapy. The expression of nuclear c-Rel and IRF-4 occurs in the absence of Tax in primary ATLL and is associated with antiviral resistance. These molecular features may help guide treatment. AZT and IFN-α is a suppressive rather than a curative regimen, and patients in clinical remission should remain on maintenance therapy indefinitely.
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