Previously, we demonstrated that BMI1 acts as a stem cell maintenance factor for human stem/progenitor cells. Here, we report that BMI1 collaborates with BCR-ABL in inducing leukemogenic transformation of human cord blood (CB) CD34+ cells. BMI1 and BCR-ABL were co-expressed into CB CD34+ cells (further referred as B/B cells) using a retroviral approach and cells were transplanted into NOD-SCID mice. In two out of five mice we observed leukemia within 4 months after transplantation. Chimerism levels reached 80–90% in the bone marrow and peripheral blood and morphological analysis revealed the appearance of primitive blast-like human hematopoietic cells with features that recapitulate human lymphoid leukemia. The mice were lethargic, with splenomegaly and infiltration of leukemic cells in the spleen, liver and the bone marrow and immunophenotypical analyses revealed that the cells expressed CD34 and CD19. To further understand the mechanisms underlying the leukemic transformation we performed ex-vivo long-term cultures on bone marrow stroma. We observed that the double transduced B/B cells had a strong proliferative advantage and elevated self-renewal potential as compared to controls. Expanding cultures could be maintained for over 20 weeks and Cobblestone Area Forming Cells (CAFCs) could be harvested and replated to initiate new expanding cocultures. Stem cell frequencies were determined in Long-Term Culture-Initiating Cell (LTC-IC) assays and frequencies were enhanced over 100-fold as compared to controls. Depending on the MS5 co-culture conditions, both myeloid as well as lymphoid long-term cultures could be established, indicating that extrinsic factors might dictate the lineage fate of transformed cells. To determine the necessity of a bone marrow microenvironment, we performed stroma-free liquid cultures and observed that the B/B cells were capable of expanding over 23 weeks, BMI1 cells were able to grow for 16 weeks and, importantly, BCR-ABL cells were not able to propagate long-term in stromain-dependent cultures. Thus, these data suggest that BCR-ABL cells are still dependent on cues from the bone marrow microenvironment for long-term self-renewal, and that co-expression of the intrinsic stem cell regulator BMI1 might alleviate this necessity of BCR-ABL+ cells for a microenvironment. Experiments in which B/B-transduced cells were sorted into HSC, CMP, GMP and MEP populations indicated that long-term self-renewal and expansion could particularly be imposed on the HSC population, and much less efficiently on progenitor subpopulations. In order to study whether the B/B-leukemic stem cells could be targeted by Imatinib, we applied a short pulse of Imatinib to expanding MS5 cocultures for 7 days. While the vast majority of cells in all cultures did not survive, in the B/B-transduced group a population of immature cells remained that was capable of re-initiating proliferative cultures of self-renewing CAFCs with very high frequencies (1/96 as determined by LTC-IC assays). Finally, we asked whether retroviral introduction of BMI1 in BCR-ABL+ CD34+ cells isolated from CML patients in chronic phase that expressed low endogenous BMI1 levels would affect long-term growth and self-renewal. Upon overexpression of BMI1 we observed increased proliferation capacity of the BMI1 transduced CML cells, and cultures could be maintained for much longer periods than control-transduced cultures. In conclusion, our data indicate that BMI1 collaborates with BCR-ABL in leukemic transformation, and our human-based system should provide a useful model to study the pathology of leukemias and test new drug entities.

Disclosures: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes

Corresponding author