T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) remains a therapeutic challenge. T-ALLs are characterized by recurring chromosomal rearrangements causing aberrant expression of transcription factors (Myb; TAL/SCL; HOX) dividing patients into different subgroups. Activating mutations in NOTCH, the master regulator of T-cell development, are found in more than 60% of T-ALLs independently of subtype. Most T-ALLs display a hyperactivation of the PI3K-AKT-mTOR pathway, a potential target for therapeutic intervention. The master regulator of PI3K-AKT signalling is PTEN, which is frequently inactivated in cancer. Recent data suggests that complete PTEN loss due to mutation is rare in primary human T-ALL, whereas PTEN-inhibiting posttranslational modifications are more common (Barata et al., J. Clin. Invest. 2008, 118). As these modifications decrease, but do not abolish the phosphatase activity of PTEN, we hypothesized that further input from tyrosine kinases, particularly receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK), may be needed to sustain PI3K-AKT-mTOR activation.
In order to investigate how RTK-signaling may contribute to the pathogenesis of T-ALL we used an established murine bone marrow transplantation model (Li et al. Blood 2009, 113). To mimic tyrosine-kinase signaling we expressed δTrkA, a constitutively active TRKA receptor tyrosine kinase (TRK =tropomyosin-related kinase) from gammaretroviral or lentiviral vectors in c-kit+ Sca-1+ Lin− (KSL) cells. Intravenous injection of δTrkA-transduced hematopoietic cells in C57BL6 mice (n=10) induced transplantable T-ALL with a latency of about 120 days. The resulting T-ALLs could be propagated in culture as clonal cell lines. Signaling studies showed that δTRKA activates predominantly ERK upon expression in murine hematopoietic cell lines. However, the obtained δTRKA+ T-ALL lines (n=7) showed a profound shift in the use of downstream signaling cascades, displaying a very high activation of AKT-mTOR and absent ERK phosphorylation, resembling human T-ALL. High AKT activation was uniformly detected regardless of PTEN protein expression in all but one T-ALL (#003). To understand the rewired signaling network we looked for a potential contribution of insertional mutagenesis and chromosomal aberrations. Array-CGH showed homozygous deletions on chr14c2 involving the T-cell receptor alpha and delta genes in 3/3 cell lines and heterozygous deletions in Ikzf1 in 2/3 cell lines. Viral integration sites showed no common insertion pattern and no insertion in genes implicated in RTK-signaling. The expression of genes in proximity to viral integrations (±500 kb) appeared unaltered as determined by cDNA-microarray analysis of the T-ALL cell line #483 against wild type CD4+CD8+ thymocytes. Microarray analysis revealed enrichment of Notch1 target genes in the T-ALL cell line #483. Sequencing of Notch1 revealed both, PEST domain mutations and the recently described (Aster et al, Blood 2010, 116) RAG mediated 5'-deletions in cis, in all but one investigated T-ALL. Northern and Western Blots confirmed the expression of truncated Notch1 transcripts and protein, respectively. The one cell line (#003) which retained the original δTrkA signaling pattern had no Notch mutation and could only be cultured on OP9-Delta-like-1 stroma cells, highlighting the importance of Notch signaling. As this cell line was established from a mouse displaying an enlarged thymus, but no full manifestation of T-ALL, our data suggests that acquisition of Notch mutations is a late, but necessary step required for overt leukemia, whereas the initiating events may arise in kinase signaling pathways of prethymic progenitors. All T-ALL cell lines were sensitive to mTOR or Notch inhibition with Rapamycin or Compound E, respectively. Finally, we used phosphoprotein-arrays to monitor the phosphorylation of 42 RTK in childhood T-ALL samples with different activating NOTCH mutations (n=5) and detected several activated RTK (e.g. MSPR, FGFR, ErbB4, VEGFR) in the patient samples.
Taken together, our findings suggest a cooperation of RTK and activating NOTCH mutations in mTOR activation seen in T-ALL and encourage further investigation of 1) aberrant RTK-signaling in T-ALL 2) the role of RTK activation in creating a preleukemic cell clone, 3) evaluation of combined therapy targeting RTKs and NOTCH, and 4) the role of activated NOTCH on mTORC2-AKT activation independently of PTEN.
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