miRNA expression is deregulated in human acute myeloid leukemia (AML), however the impact of altered post-transcriptional programs on the genesis and maintenance of leukemia stem cells (LSC) remains undefined. In order to elucidate the functional role of miRNA in LSC and identify relevant miRNA candidates, we performed global miRNA profiling on sorted cell subpopulations from 16 AML patient and 3 umbilical cord blood samples (Eppert et al, Nature Medicine 2011). Supervised analysis guided by the ability of each sub-population to initiate leukemic engraftment after xenotransplantation into immune-deficient mice generated a unique miRNA signature. miR-126, a miRNA that we previously demonstrated to have a conserved role in maintaining hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) quiescence (Lechman et al. Cell Stem Cell, 2012), was more highly expressed in LSC-enriched fractions and chosen for further validation. To confirm that miR-126 is a bona fide LSC determinant, we utilized a bidirectional lentiviral reporter vector specific for miR-126 (Gentner et al. Science Translational Medicine, 2010) to sort cells from AML patient samples based on miR-126 bioactivity, and demonstrated that all in vivo leukemia-initiating capacity was confined to cells with elevated miR-126 bioactivity. Lentiviral enforced expression of miR-126 in primary AML patient samples significantly increased LSC frequency (3.5-52.3 fold) as assessed by limiting dilution transplantation assays, while diminishing cell cycle entry, differentiation marker expression (CD14,CD15) and colony forming potential. Sponge-mediated knockdown of miR-126 expression resulted in the opposite effects. These findings suggest that high levels of miR-126 bioactivity support self-renewal/maintenance of primitive AML cells at the cost of aberrant differentiation. Moreover, by preserving LSC quiescence miR-126 promoted chemotherapy resistance, in part through suppression of CDK3, a gatekeeper of G0 to G1 cell cycle transit. Enforced expression of CDK3 partially rescued the functional consequences of supra-physiological levels of miR-126 bioactivity, rendering previously resistant LSC susceptible to killing by AraC/Daunorubicin combination chemotherapy. Our human LSC miRNA signature, optimized by regression analysis on a cytogenetically normal AML patient cohort, was prognostic for survival in a large independent AML patient cohort (Ley et. al N Engl. J Med, 2013) further validating the clinical significance of miRNA as stem cell determinants. Furthermore, miRNA-126 alone was prognostic for survival in two independent cohorts of AML patients with normal cytogenetics. These data demonstrate a mechanistic role for miR-126 in governing intrinsic LSC properties and establish miR-126 as a critical biomarker for clinical outcome.


Wang:Trillium Therapeutics/Stem Cell Therapeutics: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.