Malignant reprogramming, first described in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), occurs upon activation of the Wnt/b-catenin pathway in granulocyte-macrophage progenitors (GMPs) that gain the capacity to self-renew and contribute to the emergence of BCR-ABL1 tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) resistant blast crisis CML. Deregulation of the Wnt/b-catenin target gene, CD44, plays a vital role in leukemia stem cell (LSC) maintenance in the malignant microenvironment in mouse models of CML. However, extensive alternative mRNA splicing in humans results in expression of multiple CD44 isoforms, some of which have been implicated in cancer invasion and metastasis. In this study we investigated the role of CD44 splice variant expression on human blast crisis LSC maintenance in the malignant niche.

Methods and Results

CD44 Isoform Expression Analysis

To investigate the splice isoform expression pattern of CD44, whole transcriptome RNA sequencing (RNA Seq; Illumina HiSeq 2000) was performed on FACS sorted chronic phase (CP; n=8) and blast crisis (BC; n=8) CML progenitors (CD34+CD38+Lin-) as well as their normal counterparts from cord blood (CB) (n=7) and adult peripheral blood (NPB; n=4). While whole gene expression analysis revealed upregulation of CD44 in blast crisis compared with chronic phase and normal progenitors, a plethora of CD44 transcript variants were also detected including variants 3, 4 (CD44s), 5, 6, 7, 8. Notably, RNA Seq isoform analysis detected a higher expression of CD44 transcript variant 3 in BC compared to CP and CB and NPB. Moreover, CD44 transcript variant 3 gene expression was highly expressed in undifferentied human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) while differentiated hESCs (embryoid bodies) had low expression, suggesting CD44 transcript variant 3 to be important for pluripotency.

Lentiviral CD44 Variant 3 Overexpression

To directly determine the impact of CD44 variant 3 expression on malignant reprogramming of CP progenitors into self-renewing LSC, we developed a lentiviral human CD44 variant 3 overexpression vector and transduced CP CML progenitors. Transduced CP progenitors harbored increased expression of migration specific markers, such as osteopontin and ICAM1, as well as an upregulation of the pro-survival long isoforms of BCL2 family members BCLX and MCL1, thereby enhancing survival and replating in hematopoietic progenitor assays. Moreover, hESCs transduced with CD44 transcript variant 3 showed upregulation of pro-survival BCL2 isoforms, enhanced proliferation and as well as maintenance of an undifferentiated state, suggesting that CD44 transcript variant 3 promotes pluripotency.

Targeted Inhibition of CD44 variant 3 Expressing LSC

Humanized RAG2-/-gc-/-mice engrafted with CD34+ BC CML patient samples showed a significant reduction of human progenitor cells post treatment with a clinical grade CD44 mAb, both alone and in combination with Dasatinib in all hematopoietic niches. Bone marrow and spleen samples from primary transplanted mice show a reduced gene expression level of CD44 and CD44 transcript variant 3 upon combination treatment of CD44 and Dasatinib. Most importantly, serial transplantation of progenitors treated with the CD44 mAb as well as in combination with Dasatinib revealed a significant reduction in LSC self-renewal capacity commensurate with a reduction in CD44 variant 3 expression.


Upregulation of an embryonic splice variant of CD44, variant 3, expands pluripotent stem cell populations and promotes malignant reprogramming of CML progenitors into self-renewing LSC. Treatment with a humanized CD44 specific mAb sensitizes CML LSC residing in malignant niches to Dasatinib. From these results CD44 mAb appears to be an excellent antibody for future combination clinical studies aimed at eradicating therapy resistant blast crisis LSC in CML. In addition, these observations strongly suggest that CD44 transcript variant 3 upregulation serves as a biomarker of progression from CP to BC as well as the generation of TKI resistant LSCs, with the potential of being a more specific target for future combination therapies.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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