Key Points

  • IL-7R expression is a functional biomarker of T-ALL cells with leukemia-initiating potential and plays a crucial role in T-ALL pathogenesis

  • Targeting IL-7R-mediated signaling hampers leukemia-initiating activity and progression of human T-ALL.

T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) is an aggressive hematological malignancy resulting from the dysregulation of signaling pathways that control intrathymic T-cell development. Relapse rates are still significant and prognosis is particularly bleak for relapsed patients. Therefore, development of novel therapies specifically targeting pathways controlling leukemia-initiating cell (LIC) activity is mandatory for fighting refractory T-ALL. The interleukin-7 receptor (IL-7R) is a crucial T-cell developmental pathway commonly expressed in T-ALL, which has been implicated in leukemia progression. However, the significance of IL-7R/IL-7 signaling in T-ALL pathogenesis and its contribution to disease relapse remain unknown. To directly explore whether IL-7R targeting may be therapeutically efficient against T-ALL relapse, we focused here on a known Notch1-induced T-ALL model, since a majority of T-ALL patients harbor activating mutations in NOTCH1, which is a transcriptional regulator of IL-7R expression. Using loss-of-function approaches, we show that Il7r-deficient, but not wild type, mouse hematopoietic progenitors transduced with constitutively active Notch1 failed to generate leukemia upon transplantation into immunodeficient mice, thus providing formal evidence that IL-7R function is essential for Notch1-induced T-cell leukemogenesis. Moreover, we demonstrate that IL-7R expression is an early functional biomarker of T-ALL cells with LIC potential, and demonstrate that impaired IL-7R signaling hampers engraftment and progression of patient-derived T-ALL xenografts. Notably, we show that IL-7R-dependent LIC activity and leukemia progression can be extended to human B-ALL. These results have important therapeutic implications, highlighting the relevance that targeting normal IL-7R signaling may have in future therapeutic interventions, particularly for preventing T-ALL (and B-ALL) relapse.

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