Background: Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an aggressive malignancy characterized by clonal expansion of transformed myeloid precursors that fail to differentiate into mature cells. Since myeloid lineage maturation curbs self-renewal and is considered irreversible, engaging this process in AML is an attractive therapeutic strategy.

Results: Normal myeloid differentiation requires the transcription factor PU.1 (SPI1), which is functionally compromised in several AML subtypes and is directly inhibited by the recurrent fusion oncoproteins AML1-ETO and PML-RARA. To examine the importance of PU.1 suppression in AML maintenance in vivo, we have combined RNAi-mediated PU.1 inhibition with p53 deficiency to drive highly aggressive AML in mice. Using these models we find that restoring endogenous PU.1 activity in established AML in vivo is sufficient to trigger robust transcriptional, immunophenotypic, and morphological differentiation of leukemic blasts, yielding polymorphonuclear, neutrophil-like cells. Maturation of AML is associated with significant loss of cell viability and yields sustained disease clearance in vivo. Although PU.1 restoration is potently anti-leukemic, remarkably we find that subsequent suppression of PU.1 in mature neutrophil-like cells reverts them to a transformed state within several days. While mature AML-derived cells are slower to form blast colonies in methylcellulose cultures, their clonogenic frequency is only reduced four-fold relative to AML blasts suggesting highly efficient de-differentiation.

Conclusions: These results demonstrate that triggering myeloid differentiation can effectively resolve a p53-deficient model of treatment resistant AML, but also identify a previously unrecognised ability of AML cells to bidirectionally transition between transformed and differentiated states based on the activity of a single transcription factor. Our findings challenge the concept of 'terminal differentiation' in AML and highlight the importance of therapeutically eradicating leukemia cells at all stages of myeloid lineage maturation.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.