The SCL and LMO oncogenes are frequently activated in childhood T cell acute leukemia (T-ALL). SCL is a bHLH transcription factor that forms heterodimers with other members, specifically HEB and E2A. SCL can either activate or repress transcription but its mechanism of action as an oncogene remains to be clarified. Ectopic expression of SCL and LMO in transgenic mice causes thymocyte differentiation arrest during the preleukemic phase with aberrant differentiation at the DN3–DN4 stage, prior to the acquisition of CD4 and CD8. We therefore took several approaches to define the mechanism underlying this differentiation arrest. Using a CD3e-deficient background to eliminate preTCR signaling effects, an event that is not essential for leukemogenesis, we first analyzed global gene expression of pre-leukemic SCLtg/LMOtg DN3 thymocytes against their non-transgenic littermates via the Affymetrix platform. In this context, SCL/LMO globally affects the expression of both positive and negative targets of E2A/HEB. These results were confirmed by real-time quantitative PCR, showing that SCL/LMO repress E2A/HEB activity. Second, bioinformatic analysis of genes significantly affected by SCL/LMO allowed us to identify phylogenetically conserved HEB/E2A binding sites within the promoter regions of half of these genes. E2A/HEB binding was directly assessed through chromatin immunoprecipitation of primary thymocytes, confirming known target genes and revealing novel ones. This assay also showed that SCL associates with HEB and/or E2A on DNA. Moreover, structure function analysis indicate that transcription inhibition by SCL depends on its HLH domain but not on LMO interaction. We therefore conclude that SCL inhibits thymocyte differentiation by inhibiting E2A/HEB targets that include genes required for thymocyte differentiation, cell signalling, DNA repair and replication. Finally, using a genetic approach we show that SCL/LMO collaborates with HEB haploinsufficiency in inducing leukemia. Our observations therefore reveal that the repression of HEB/E2A by SCL/LMO is a crucial step in T cell transformation.

Support from CIHR and FRSQ.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.