Deregulated homeobox gene expression characterizes more than 60% of all acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients, particular in patients with normal karyotype (NK). So far it is largely unknown how the aberrant expression of homeobox genes is initiated in the malignant clone. The ParaHox gene Cdx2 was shown to act as positive upstream regulator of Hox genes in embryogenesis. We have previously shown that ectopic Cdx2, which normally is not expressed in hematopoietic cells, can be the key event in the development of AML in mice (Rawat et al., PNAS 2004). In our present study we now demonstrate that ectopic expression of Cdx2 in murine hematopoietic progenitors induced significant up-regulation of Hox genes with leukemogenic potential such as HoxA9, Hoxa10, HoxA5, Hoxa7, Hoxb6, Hoxb8. Deletion of the N-terminal transactivation domain of Cdx2 abrogated its ability to perturb Hox gene expression and eliminated its leukemogenic potential in vivo (n=13), whereas inactivation of the putative Pbx binding site of the protein did not prevent Cdx2 induced leukemogenesis. As we showed that Cdx2 upregulated leukemogenic Hox genes and caused AML in the murine model we analyzed 115 AML patients for a correlation between the expression levels of CDX2 and deregulated HOX gene expression. A total of 71 patients with normal karyotype (AML NPMc+ = 45 cases; NPMc– = 26 cases) was analyzed for CDX2 expression. 89% of the AML NPMc+ cases showed ectopic expression of CDX2 as well as 88% of the cases without the NPM1 mutation. We extended this analysis to 44 patients with abnormal karyotype and detected ectopic CDX2 expression in 64% (28 out of 44) of the cases: 12 of 24 patients with t(8;21), 10 of 10 patients with t(15;17). Importantly, when the expression level of CDX2 was compared between AML cases with normal and abnormal karyotype, there was 14fold higher expression level in the patient group with NK (n=63) compared to the group with aberrant karyotype (n=28) (ØΔCT 7.72 vs. ØΔCT 11.62, respectively; p>0.001). By using oligonucleotide microarray analysis, we confirmed that high Cdx2 expressing AML-NK patients with (n=12) or without NPM1 mutation (n=12) were characterized by aberrant expression of multiple HOXA and B cluster genes such as HOXA10, HOXA9 and HOXB3, HOXB6 in contrast to AML cases expressing the PML-RARA or AML1-ETO fusion gene or normal healthy donors. Three NPMc- cases with normal karyotype showed the same low level of expression of CDX2 (ΔCT 10.55–11.55) as AML cases with aberrant karyotype. Of note, these three cases did not show any perturbation of HOX gene expression and thereby fell into the same cluster as AML cases with t(8;21) or t(15;17) in the microarray data set evaluating HOX gene expression in the different AML subtypes. All AML-NK patients tested were negative for CDX1 and CDX4 expression. These data link the leukemogenic potential of Cdx2 to its ability to dysregulate Hox genes. They furthermore correlate the level of CDX2 expression with HOX gene expression in human AML and support a potential role of CDX2 in the development of human AML with aberrant Hox gene expression.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.