T-cell development in the thymus is a complex process that depends on sequential transcriptional and epigenetic events that induce T-cell lineage commitment and simultaneously suppress alternative cell fates. In T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), aberrantly expressed oncogenes result in the arrest of developing thymocytes, which can lead to the acquisition of secondary mutations, uncontrolled proliferation and disease progression. MEF2C is often expressed as a result of chromosomal rearrangements in immature, early T-cell progenitor ALL (ETP-ALL), but is also expressed in normal thymocyte progenitors before T-cell commitment (in the ETP stage). As the only hematopoietic lineage, thymocytes that have passed the T-cell commitment checkpoint (as well as mature T-cells) do no longer express MEF2C.


We aimed to investigate the effect of constitutive MEF2C expression on early T-cell development. OP9-DL1 co-cultures have been most useful for mimicking in vitro T-cell development starting with hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) derived from human cord blood or bone marrow. We also aimed to investigate the impact of MEF2C in comparison to LYL1 and LMO2; two T-ALL oncogenes also highly expressed at the ETP stage.


We have utilized the OP9-DL1 in vitro co-culture system to gradually differentiate CD34+ HSCs from umbilical cord blood into the T-cell lineage. HSCs in this co-culture will recapitulate in vivo T-cell development as measured by incremental acquisition of surface markers CD7, CD5, CD1a, and reach the CD4, CD8 double-positive (DP) stage. We generated gene expression profiles of 11 subsequent in vitro stages of differentiation to help us match them to in vivo development stages. We investigated in vitro T-cell differentiation of HSCs after lentiviral transduction with MEF2C or control vectors, as well as with other transcriptional regulators LYL1 and LMO2 that are expressed at the ETP stage.


The major change in gene expression of subsequent early T-cell differentiation stages defines two distinct T-cell differentiation clusters that correlate with in vivo pre- and post-T-cell commitment profiles. We found that T-cell commitment occurs in CD7+ CD5+ cells before the acquisition of CD1a surface expression. Expression of control vectors in HSCs does not affect the in vitro T-cell differentiation, but MEF2C expression blocks differentiation into the direction of T-cells as measured by the failure of most cells to acquire CD7 as the first marker. Instead, with increased passage number cells gradually lose CD34 expression and eventually disappear from the co-culture. Similar effects were observed for the expression of LYL1 and LMO2; LYL1 expression arrests the cells at the most immature CD7+ ETP stage and prevents the transition towards CD7+ CD5+ cells, whereas LMO2 expressing cells reach the CD7+ CD5+ stage but fail to acquire CD1a as a marker of T-cell commitment.


The gene expression profiles of 11 human in vitro T-cell differentiation subsets has enabled us to pinpoint T-cell commitment to a stage in which cells have acquired CD7 and CD5, just prior to the acquisition of CD1a. MEF2C, LYL1, and LMO2, expressed in ETP-ALL as well as in normal thymocyte progenitors, do not allow the transition to T-cell commitment when constitutively expressed. These proteins each result in the arrest of in vitro differentiating T-cells at different ETP stages, all before the T-cell commitment as marked by CD1a expression. Constitutive expression of MEF2C, LYL1, or LMO2 in very early thymocyte progenitors is incompatible with development into and beyond the T-cell commitment checkpoint and these proteins could therefore play important roles in the pathogenesis of ETP-ALL.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.