Key Points

  • CRISPR-induced truncation of the FBXW7 substrate binding domain identifies cleaved NOTCH1 (NICD) as a target of FBXW7 in CLL cells.

  • FBXW7 mutations in CLL correlate with increased NICD protein and elevated NOTCH1 target gene expression and thereby mimic NOTCH1 mutations.

Abstract

NOTCH1 is mutated in 10% of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients and is associated with poor outcome. However, NOTCH1 activation is identified in approximately one-half of CLL cases even in the absence of NOTCH1 mutations. Hence, there appear to be additional factors responsible for the impairment of NOTCH1 degradation. E3-ubiquitin ligase F-box and WD40 repeat domain containing-7 (FBXW7), a negative regulator of NOTCH1, is mutated in 2% to 6% of CLL patients. The functional consequences of these mutations in CLL are unknown. We found heterozygous FBXW7 mutations in 36 of 905 (4%) untreated CLL patients. The majority were missense mutations (78%) that mostly affected the WD40 substrate binding domain; 10% of mutations occurred in the first exon of the α-isoform. To identify target proteins of FBXW7 in CLL, we truncated the WD40 domain in CLL cell line HG-3 via clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated protein-9 (Cas9). Homozygous truncation of FBXW7 resulted in an increase of activated NOTCH1 intracellular domain (NICD) and c-MYC protein levels as well as elevated hypoxia-inducible factor 1-α activity. In silico modeling predicted that novel mutations G423V and W425C in the FBXW7-WD40 domain change the binding of protein substrates. This differential binding was confirmed via coimmunoprecipitation of overexpressed FBXW7 and NOTCH1. In primary CLL cells harboring FBXW7 mutations, activated NICD levels were increased and remained stable upon translation inhibition. FBXW7 mutations coincided with an increase in NOTCH1 target gene expression and explain a proportion of patients characterized by dysregulated NOTCH1 signaling.

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