MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of small, noncoding RNAs that bind and regulate target messenger RNAs (mRNAs). The let-7 family consists of twelve genes encoding nine highly conserved miRNAs that are involved in developmental timing events in multicellular organisms. Previous studies showed regulation during the fetal-to-adult transition in the erythroid lineage with significant increases in let-7 miRNAs from adult compared to umbilical cord blood reticulocytes (1). Further studies indicated that reduced expression of let-7 in adult CD34+ cells by “sponge” targeting the miRNA family seed region caused increased fetal hemoglobin (HbF), but the mean level of HbF remained less than 20% of the total hemoglobin (2). Increased expression of LIN28A (a major regulator of all let-7 miRNAs) caused greater increases in HbF (greater than 30% of the total) in cultured erythrocytes from pediatric patients with HbSS genotype (3). However, these studies did not address the potential for targeting an individual let-7 miRNA family member to regulate HbF expression.

For this purpose, we initially determined the expression levels of mature let-7 family members in purified cell populations sorted from peripheral blood. The total levels of let-7 miRNAs in peripheral blood cells were as follows: reticulocytes: 1.7E+08 ± 1.0E+08 copies/ng; neutrophils: 2.0E+07 ± 1.1E+07 copies/ng; lymphocytes: 1.1E+07 ± 6.2E+06 copies/ng and monocytes: 3.5E+06 ± 2.7E+06 copies/ng. Among the individual species, let-7a was identified as a predominantly expressed let-7 family member in reticulocytes. As such, we hypothesized that specifically targeting let-7a may be sufficient to regulate HbF levels.

To study the effects of let-7a miRNAs upon erythropoiesis and globin expression, a lentiviral construct that incorporated the tough decoy (TuD) design to target let-7a was compared with empty vector controls. Transductions were performed in CD34+ cells from five adult healthy volunteers cultivated ex vivo in erythropoietin-supplemented serum-free media for 21 days. Down-regulation of let-7a was confirmed by Q-RT-PCR at day 14 (control: 1.4E+07 ± 2.4E+06 copies/ng; let-7a-TuD: 1.6E+06 ± 4.6E+05 copies/ng; p=0.0003). Cell proliferation and differentiation were comparable in let-7a-TuD versus control transductions. Expression levels of globin genes were evaluated upon let-7a-TuD by Q-RT-PCR. Let-7a-TuD transductions caused significantly increased gamma-globin mRNA expression levels compared to control transductions (control: 1.2E+06 ± 6.8E+05 copies/ng; let-7a-TuD: 1.1E+07 ± 4.5E+06 copies/ng; p=0.004). HPLC analyses at the end of the culture period demonstrated robust increases in HbF levels after let-7a-TuD transduction (HbF control: 4.7 ± 0.6%; let-7a-TuD: 38.2 ± 3.8%; p=0.00003). In addition, the expression patterns of the erythroid transcription factors BCL11A, KLF1 and SOX6 were investigated. Let-7a-TuD decreased BCL11A mRNA expression levels (control: 1.7E+03 ± 4.5E+02 copies/ng; let-7a-TuD: 4.3E+02 ± 1.8E+02 copies/ng; p=0.003), but major changes in KLF1 or SOX6 were not detected.

In summary, we report here that the let-7 miRNA family is differentially expressed in purified cell populations from adult human blood, and that let-7a is a predominantly expressed species in reticulocytes. Further, targeted reduction of let-7a in erythroblasts is sufficient to cause robust increases in gamma-globin mRNA expression and HbF to mean levels around 35-40% of the total hemoglobin produced. Targeting of individual let-7 genes or RNA transcripts may be useful for therapeutic induction of HbF expression in patients with sickle cell disease or other beta-hemoglobinopathies.

1) Noh SJ et al. J Transl Med. 7:98 (2009).

2) Lee YT et al. Blood. 122:1034-41 (2013).

3) Vasconcellos JF et al. Blood. 122: Abstract 313 (2013).

Disclosures

No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.