TCF3-PBX1 is one of the most common recurrent translocations which define distinct subtypes of B-lineage Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (B-ALL). Patients with TCF3-PBX1 B-ALL have poor clinical outcome, however, the molecular mechanisms underlying poor outcome are poorly understood. It is critical to identify the cellular processes that contribute to the biological and clinical features of this form of ALL and to develop new targeted therapeutic strategies to improve the outcome.


We first performed ChIP-seq with antibodies against the fusion oncoprotein TCF3-PBX1 in the human B-ALL cell line 697 and found that the pre–B cell receptor (pre-BCR) genes (IGLL1 or λ5, VpreB, CD79A, CD79B) and µ-chain enhancer regions were directly bound by the fusion protein. Gene expression microarray data showed that the pre-BCR signaling genes (IGLL1, VpreB, IGHM, BLK, LCK, SYK, LYN, SRC and BLNK) were overexpressed in TCF3-PBX1, but not other cytogenetic subtypes of B-ALL (n=132 B-ALL patient samples, St. Jude), suggesting a unique high pre-BCR activity in TCF3-PBX1 ALL. Further flow cytometry analysis using µ-chain specific antibodies showed a strong Ca2+ signal in TCF3-PBX1, but not other subtypes of ALL (n=27). The sequencing analysis on IGHM locus in 148 primary B-ALL samples showed that 100% cases of TCF3-PBX1 (n=8) carried functional IGHM VHDJH gene rearrangements, however only 17% for BCR-ABL1 (n=57), 0% for MLL-AF4 (n=7), 31% for ETV6-RUNX1 (n=13), 3.3% for hyperdiploid (n=30), 20% for sporadic (n=20) and 31% for normal karyotype (n=13) ALL. These data demonstrates that TCF3-PBX1 ALL has an unusual spectrum of high activity of pre-BCR signaling.

The transcriptional repressor BCL6 has been identified as a critical survival factor in diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. We found that BCL6 was highly expressed in TCF3-PBX1 as compared to other subtypes of ALL by our Western blot (n=15) and also by gene expression microarray data from three B-ALL clinical trials: COG P9906 (n=207), ECOG E2993 (n=191) and St. Jude ALL (n=132). The clinical data showed that high expression of BCL6 correlates with poor clinical outcome. Those data suggested BCL6 might play a critical oncogene role in TCF3-PBX1 ALL. The TCF3-PBX1 ChIPseq data showed no binding enrichment on BCL6 locus. However, forced expression of pre-BCR components (µ-chain and BLNK) resulted in up-regulation of BCL6 (Western blot), suggesting BCL6 upregulation in TCF3-PBX1 ALL was induced by pre-BCR but not the fusion protein binding. To further test this, we applied SYK and BTK inhibitors to treat TCF-PBX1 ALL cells and found that they dramatically decreased BCL6 mRNA and protein levels and also induced cell apoptosis, suggesting BCL6 might be a therapeutic target for TCF3-PBX1 ALL. To test this, we transduced a primary TCF3-PBX1 B-ALL xenograft sample with a dominant-negative BCL6-mutant (BCL6-DN). Expression of BCL6-DN rapidly induced cell death. When treating primary TCF3-PBX1 ALL cells with the specific BCL6 peptide inhibitor RI-BPI and the small molecule inhibitor PU-H71, they significantly induced cell cycle arrest, compromised colony formation, and prevented leukemia-initiation in transplant recipient mice. Collectively, those data indicates BCL6 is a new therapeutic target for TCF-PBX1 ALL.

Dasatinib is a second generation tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) targeting both BCR-ABL1 and Src kinase. We hypothesized that TCF3-PBX1 ALL cells would be more sensitive to Dasatinib than other TKIs because Dasatinib inhibits pre-BCR signaling and hence BCL6. We treated primary TCF3-PBX1 B-ALL cells with Dasatinib and Nilotinib, and found that BCL6 protein expression was abolished with Dasatinib, but no changes with Nilotinib. We also observed a >90% reduction in viability of leukemia cells with 50nM Dasatinib, however only ∼50% cell death at a much higher concentration of Nilotinib (1000nM). These data indicates that Dasatinib can efficiently kill TCF3-PBX1 leukemia cells by inhibiting pre-BCR and BCL6.


Our study identified TCF3-PBX1 B-ALL as a unique form of ALL which has an unusual high activity of pre-BCR signaling. BCL6 was upregulated by pre-BCR, which we showed was required for proliferation and survival of TCF3-PBX1 ALL cells. Targeting pre-BCR and BCL6 using Dasatinib and specific BCL6 inhibitors (RI-BPI or PU-H71) induced apoptosis of primary TCF3-PBX1 B-ALL cells in vitro and in vivo.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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