Deregulated expression of the zinc finger transcription factor ecotropic viral integration site 1 (EVI1) is an independent poor prognostic marker for patients with acute myeloid leukemia. Moreover, we have recently shown that in clinical gene therapy of chronic granulomatous disease (cGD) the activation of this gene locus by strong promoter and enhancer elements within the gamma-retroviral vector LTR has led to clonal dominance and malignant transformation. Physiologically, EVI1 is essential for embryonic development and in regulating hematopoietic stem cell self-renewal. As very little is known about its molecular mechanism driving hematopoietic transformation towards leukemia, we aim to systematically analyze the role of deregulated EVI1 expression and its larger splice form MDS1/EVI1 in hematopoiesis.
Lentiviral vector particles encoding for EVI1 (E) or MDS1/EVI1 (ME) and eGFP as marker protein were produced to stably overexpress the transgenes. Transgene expression was verified in myeloid HL60 cells by western blotting and immunofluorescence staining. Analysis of growth kinetics of human HL60 cells in suspension cultures revealed 1.5 – 3 folds lower cell counts of ME and E expressing cells as compared to eGFP control vector transduced cells. We further analyzed the expression of transferrin receptor CD71 which is mainly expressed on proliferating cells to promote iron uptake. Both, E and ME transduced cells, down-regulated CD71 during seven days in culture as compared to eGFP-transduced control cells. 64.2 ± 0.4% of ME cells and 31.1 ± 1.6% of E cells expressed CD71 compared to untransduced (97.4 ± 0.0%) and control vector cells (94.8 ± 0.8%) (p<0.001). For further analyzing the transgene effect on cell cycle activity, 3 populations with different intensity of transgene expression (negative, intermediate and high eGFP+ cells) were isolated. With raising ME expression a 5-fold decrease in the percentage of cells in sub-G1 phase but a 1.3-fold increase in the percentage of cells in G1/G0 phase of the cell cycle was detected. In the highly EVI1 expressing fraction 91.4% arrested in G1/G0 phase of the cell cycle (50.4% in G1/G0 phase in eGFP− E cells). Moreover, almost 1/3 of these transcription factor expressing cells (29.8 ± 8.3% of ME and 27.2 ± 1.6% of EVI1 positive cells) could be detected in G0 phase as compared to 5.0 ± 1.3% of control vector transduced cells. In human CD34+ hematopoietic cells, E and ME overexpression led to a decrease of eGFP+ cells from 8% at day 3 after transduction to 0.5 – 2.5% at day 14 in suspension culture. In contrast, the proportion of eGFP+ human primary cells remained stable for the time period analyzed after transduction with the control vector.
We then asked if the cell cycle arrest in G0/G1 is associated with genetic instability, as patients with insertional activation of EVI1 developed a myelodysplastic syndrome with monosomy 7. Analyzing global gene expression comparing mock and eGFP control vector transduced cells with EVI1 expressing hematopoietic cells revealed more than 2000 differentially regulated genes. Genes involved in cell cycle regulation, recombination, replication and DNA repair were significantly downregulated upon EVI1 expression compared to control cells. For further studying DNA damage repair capacity, we irradiated EVI1- and eGFP-control vector transduced cells. Staining of γ-H2AX, an indirect marker for DNA double strand breaks (DSB), revealed that EVI1+ γ-H2AX+ cells were enriched almost 2-fold in G0/G1 phase of the cell cycle as compared to control vector transduced cells. The number of DSB positive cells decreased within 6 hours without apoptosis indicating that most of the double-strand breaks were repaired by non-homologous end-joining.
In summary, our data show that EVI1 overexpression causes G0 cell cycle arrest of hematopoietic cells possibly associated with genetic instability. DSB repair in EVI1+ cells may subsequently lead to the accumulation of additional mutations. Systematic investigation of EVI1 and MDS1/EVI1 overexpression in human hematopoietic cells will gain insights into mechanisms leading to clonal dominance and malignant transformation.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.