In order to understand the pathophysiology of leukemia, we need to study the effects of leukemic oncogenes on the rare hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells. We investigated the self-renewal capabilities of the various hematopoietic cell types derived from Mll-AF9 knock-in mice. We used the murine knock-in model since it offers the advantage of a single copy of the Mll-fusion gene under the control of the endogenous promoter present in every hematopoietic stem/progenitor cell. In methylcellulose cultures, we compared myeloid colony formation of Mll-AF9 cells to wild type progenitor populations over three generations of plating. In the first generation of plating, the Mll-AF9 common myeloid progenitors (CMPs) and granulocyte-macrophage progenitors (GMPs) formed more colonies than the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and common lymphoid progenitors (CLPs). However, at the third generation of plating, colony numbers formed by Mll-AF9 HSCs and CLPs were significantly greater than those formed by CMPs and GMPs. By the third generation only occasional colonies were found in the wild type groups. These results demonstrate that while Mll-AF9 led to an increase in self-renewal of all 4 cell types studied, these effects were more pronounced in HSCs and CLPs. To identify the downstream genes that mediate the growth deregulatory effects of Mll-AF9, we compared gene expression profiles of Mll-AF9 derived cells to their wild type counterparts. To assess gene expression levels, we extracted RNA from wild type and Mll-AF9 HSCs, CLPs, CMPs and GMPs. We then amplified and labeled the RNA for analysis by Affymetrix murine 430 2.0 genome arrays. In an unsupervised analysis, the various Mll-AF9 cells clustered with their corresponding wild type counterparts, indicating that the expression of most genes was not significantly altered by Mll-AF9. To identify the genes that are differentially expressed in the Mll-AF9 derived cells, we performed a two-way ANOVA (with the genotype and cell type as the two variables) allowing for a false discovery rate of 10%. In this analysis, we found that 76 genes were up-regulated in all Mll-AF9 progenitor cells compared to their wild-type counterparts. This list included known targets of Mll-fusion proteins Hoxa5, Hoxa7, Hoxa9 and Hoxa10. Also included were Evi1 and Mef2c, two genes that have been implicated in promoting enhanced self-renewal of murine hematopoietic cells. Importantly, in wild type mice, these 6 genes were expressed at higher levels in HSCs and CLPs compared to CMPs and GMPs (average 3–25 fold). While we observed an average 2–10 fold increase in expression of these genes in all Mll-AF9 cell types compared to their respective wild type controls, the expression level was 3–8 fold higher in Mll-AF9 HSCs and CLPs compared to CMPs and GMPs. Thus, the expression of genes known to be intrinsically related to self-renewal is further enhanced as a result of the Mll-AF9 fusion gene. In conclusion, while activation of the Mll-AF9 genetic program and the resulting enhanced self-renewal occurs in all 4 cell types studied, these effects are greatest in HSCs and CLPs. Thus, HSCs and CLPs are likely to be more efficient than CMPs and GMPs in producing cellular expansion and targets for cooperating mutations resulting in leukemia.

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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