We describe a new AML entity, occurring in 30% of de novo acute myeloid leukemia, due to structural and epigenetic deregulation of the UNCX homeobox (HB) gene. By molecular approaches, we identified a M5 AML patient with a t(7;10)(p22;p14) translocation as the sole cytogenetic anomaly and showing ectopic expression of UNCX (7p22.3), which encode for a transcription factor involved in somitogenesis and neurogenesis. Since UNCX was never reported in association with cancer but only with common myeloid cell proliferation and regulation of cell differentiation, we decided to investigate its contribution to leukemogenesis. We observed UNCX ectopic expression in 32.3% (20/62) and in 8% (6/75) of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients and cell lines, respectively. Notably, retroviral-mediated UNCX transfer in CD34+ HSCs induced a slow-down in their proliferation and differentiation and transduced cells showed a lower growth rate but a higher percentage of CD34+ stem cells in liquid culture than controls. Additionally, UNCX infected cells displayed a decrease of MAP2K1 proliferation marker but increase of KLF4, HOXA10, and CCNA1, associated with impaired differentiation and pluripotency. Similarly, UNCX-positive patients revealed alteration of gene pathways involved in proliferation, cell cycle control and hematopoiesis. Since HB genes encode for transcription factors showing a crucial role in normal hematopoiesis and in leukemogenesis, we focused our attention on the role of altered UNCX expression level. Of note, its murine ortholog, (Uncx) was previously described as embedded within a low-methylated regions (≤ 10%) called "canyon" and dysregulated in murine hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) as a consequence of altered methylation at canyons edges (borders) due to Dnmt3a inactivation. In our hands, UNCX activation was accompanied by methylation changes at both its canyon borders, clearly indicating an epigenetic regulation of this gene, although not induced by DNMT3A mutations.

Clinical parameters and correlation with response to therapy will be presented.

Taken together, our results indicate that more than 30% of de novo AML have a novel entity with a putative leukemogenic role of UNCX, whose activation may be ascribed to epigenetic regulators.

Acknowledgments: MG, CP, GS, and AP(2) and this work was supported by ELN, AIL, AIRC, progetto Regione-Università 2010-12 (L. Bolondi), Fondazione del Monte di Bologna e Ravenna, FP7 NGS-PTL project. CTS, GD and AL are supported by Associazione Italiana Ricerca sul Cancro (AIRC) funding.


Nadarajah:MLL Munich Leukemia Laboratory: Employment. Martinelli:MSD: Consultancy; Novartis: Consultancy, Speakers Bureau; Ariad: Consultancy; BMS: Consultancy, Speakers Bureau; Pfizer: Consultancy; AMGEN: Consultancy; ROCHE: Consultancy.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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