The leukemia stem cell model suggests that elucidation of the genes that regulate growth ability within the leukemia cell hierarchy will have important clinical relevance. We showed that the expression of NR2F6 (EAR-2), is greater in clonogenic leukemia single cells than in leukemia cells that do not divide, and that this gene is over-expressed in patients with acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. In vivo, overexpression of EAR-2 using a retroviral vector in a chimeric mouse model leads to a condition that resembles myelodysplastic syndrome with hypercellular bone marrow, increased blasts, abnormal localization of immature progenitors, morphological dysplasia of the erythroid lineage and a competitive advantage over wild-type cells, that eventually leads to AML in a subset of the mice, or after secondary-transplantation. Interestingly, animals transplanted with bone marrow that over-expresses EAR-2 develop leukemia that is preceded by expansion of the stem cell compartment in the transplanted mice—suggesting that EAR-2 is an important regulator of hematopoietic stem cell differentiation. Here we report that over-expression of EAR-2 also has a profound effect on the differentiation of erythroid progenitor cells both in vitro and in vivo.

Studies of the roles of EAR-2 in normal primary bone marrow cells in vitro showed that overexpression of EAR-2 profoundly impaired differentiation along the erythroid lineage. EAR-2 over-expressing bone marrow cells formed 40% fewer BFU-E colonies, but had greatly extended replating capacity in colony assays. While knockdown of EAR-2 increased the number of cells produced per BFU-E colony 300%.

Normal mice transplanted with grafts of purified bone marrow cells that over-expressed EAR-2 developed a rapidly fatal leukemia characterized by pancytopenia, enlargement of the spleen, and infiltration of blasts into the spleen, liver and peripheral blood. Sick animals had profound reduction of peripheral blood cell counts, particularly anemia with a 55% reduction in hemoglobin levels. Anemia was evident even on gross inspection of the blood and the liver in EAR-2 overexpressing animals.

Analysis of the leukemic cells revealed an erythroblastic morphology, with the immunophenotype lineageneg, CD71high, TER119med. Hence, we wondered weather EAR-2 caused leukemia by arresting erythroid progenitor cell differentiation. Examination of the bone marrow of pre-leukemic animals showed a four-fold increase in cells with a pro-erythroblastic immunophenotype (CD71highTER119med , region I), and a four-fold decrease in orthochromatophilic erythroblasts (CD71lowTER119high , region IV). We observed no change in the numbers of basophilic erythroblasts (CD71highTER119high , region II) or late basophilic and polychromatophilic erythroblasts (CD71medTER119high, region III). These data suggests that over-expression of EAR-2 blocks erythroid cell differentiation at the pro-erythroblastic stage.

Since EAR-2 over-expressing recipients died within 4 week, we wanted to definitively test whether animals had compromised radioprotection. We showed that decreasing the size of the bone marrow graft, reduced survival of the EAR-2 over-expressing cohort by a week, but had no effect on control animals proving that EAR-2 over-expression has a profound effect on erythropoietic reconstitution in vivo.

Mechanistically, we show that DNA binding is necessary for EAR-2 function, and that EAR-2 functions in an HDAC-dependent manner, regulating expression of several genes. Pre-leukemic pro-erythroblastic cells (CD71highTER119med) that over-expressed EAR-2 had lower expression of genes involved in erythroid differentiation such as GATA1, EBF1, inhibitor of NFKB (NFKBia), ETV6, CEBP/a, LMO2, and Nfe2, and increased expression of GATA2, GLI1, ID1 and PU.1 than GFP control pro-erythroblasts.

These data establish that EAR-2 is a novel oncogene whose cellular function is to regulate terminal differentiation of erythroid cells at the proerythroblastic (CD71highTER119med) stage by deregulating gene expression necessary for erythroid differentiation.


Ichim:Entest BioMedical: Employment, Equity Ownership, Patents & Royalties, Research Funding. Koos:Entest BioMedical: Employment, Equity Ownership, Patents & Royalties, Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.