Asxl1−/− accelerated CMML progression and promoted CMML transformation to AML in NrasG12D/+ mice.
A suppressive immune microenvironment and upregulation of AP-1 TFs promote CMML transformation to AML.
Mutations in chromatin regulator ASXL1 are frequently identified in myeloid malignancies, in particular ∼40% of patients with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML). ASXL1 mutations are associated with poor prognosis in CMML and significantly co-occur with NRAS mutations. Here, we show that concurrent ASXL1 and NRAS mutations defined a population of CMML patients who had shorter leukemia-free survival than those with ASXL1 mutation only. Corroborating this human data, Asxl1−/− accelerated CMML progression and promoted CMML transformation to acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in NrasG12D/+ mice. NrasG12D/+;Asxl1−/− (NA) leukemia cells displayed hyperactivation of MEK/ERK signaling, increased global levels of H3K27ac, upregulation of Flt3. Moreover, we find that NA-AML cells overexpressed all the major inhibitory immune checkpoint ligands: programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1)/PD-L2, CD155, and CD80/CD86. Among them, overexpression of PD-L1 and CD86 correlated with upregulation of AP-1 transcription factors (TFs) in NA-AML cells. An AP-1 inhibitor or short hairpin RNAs against AP-1 TF Jun decreased PD-L1 and CD86 expression in NA-AML cells. Once NA-AML cells were transplanted into syngeneic recipients, NA-derived T cells were not detectable. Host-derived wild-type T cells overexpressed programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) and T-cell immunoreceptor with immunoglobulin and ITIM domains (TIGIT) receptors, leading to a predominant exhausted T-cell phenotype. Combined inhibition of MEK and BET resulted in downregulation of Flt3 and AP-1 expression, partial restoration of the immune microenvironment, enhancement of CD8 T-cell cytotoxicity, and prolonged survival in NA-AML mice. Our study suggests that combined targeted therapy and immunotherapy may be beneficial for treating secondary AML with concurrent ASXL1 and NRAS mutations.