Background: Chromosomal translocations involving the Mixed Lineage Leukemia gene MLL account for ~70% of infant acute lymphoblastic leukemias (ALLs; Ayton and Cleary, 2001) and are associated with dismal prognosis. These findings underscore the importance of understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying disease progression of MLL-rearranged (MLLr) leukemia for the development of novel therapeutics. Recently, an integrative epigenomic analysis has identified the transcriptional repressor and proto-oncogene BCL6 as a transcriptional target in MLL-AF4 -driven pre-B ALL (Geng et al., 2012). BCL6 functions as a mediator of drug resistance to tyrosine kinase inhibitors in Ph+ ALL (Duy et al., 2011). Here, we tested the hypothesis that BCL6 is required for MLLr leukemia and represents a therapeutic target in MLLr pre-B ALL.

Results: Western blot analysis of a panel of patient-derived pre-B ALL cells (MLLr : n= 7; ETV6-RUNX1 : n= 2; BCR-ABL1 : n= 1; not otherwise specified: n= 4) and normal CD19+ B cells (n= 3) revealed that BCL6 levels were elevated in MLL r ALL samples. Furthermore, immunohistochemistry staining in bone marrow biopsies from ALL patients (n= 72) showed that BCL6 levels were upregulated in MLLr cases. Expression of MLL-ENL or MLL-AF4 fusion protein increased Bcl6 protein levels (~10-fold) in murine pre-B cells. Moreover, ChIP-seq analysis of human MLLr pre-B ALL cell lines using antibodies against MLL, AF4 and ENL demonstrated direct binding to the BCL6 promoter. Studying methylation status revealed that the BCL6 promoter was hypomethylated in patients with MLLr pre-B ALL compared to patients with other subtypes of pre-B ALL (including BCR-ABL1, ETV6-RUNX 1 and hyperdiploid) as well as normal pre-B cells from healthy donors (St. Jude, n= 132, Figueroa, 2014). Consistent with these observations, multivariate analysis of high risk pre-B ALL patients showed that high BCL6 levels in combination with MLL rearrangements were associated with the worst clinical outcome (COG P9906). Collectively, our findings demonstrated that BCL6 levels are elevated in MLLr ALL, and that expression levels of MLL and BCL6 can serve as predictors for risk stratification in ALL.

Interestingly, expression of wild-type MLL was positively correlated with that of BCL6 in both pediatric (COG P9906) and adult (ECOG E2993) pre-B ALL. Furthermore, multivariate analysis comparing MLLHighBCL6High patients with MLLLowBCL6Low patients showed that high expression levels of both genes correlated with poor clinical outcome (COG P9906). These findings prompted us to study whether MLL regulates BCL6 expression, and vice versa . Cre-mediated deletion of Mll abrogated imatinib-mediated induction of Bcl6 in BCR-ABL1 -driven pre-B ALL, indicating that Mll is required for upregulation of Bcl6 expression. While genetic inactivation of Bcl6 as well as treatment with the BCL6-specific retro-inverso peptide-inhibitor (RI-BPI) decreased Mll expression, doxycycline-induced expression of Bcl6 upregulated Mll expression. Combining chromatin immunoprecipitation and DNA microarray (ChIP-on-chip), we found that BCL6 was recruited to the MLL promoter in pre-B ALL. Taken together, these findings support our proposed scenario of reciprocal regulation of MLL and BCL6 expression.

Notably, ChIP-seq analyses of MLLr pre-B ALL cells showed that there are 268 common gene targets of both MLL and BCL6. Among the common targets include cell cycle checkpoint regulators (CDKN1B, ETS2, BMI1, RB1), apoptosis facilitator BIM, and tumor suppressor TET2, indicating that BCL6 is a key regulator of the transcriptional program in MLLr pre-B ALL. In support of an essential role of BCL6 in MLLr ALL, expression of a dominant negative BCL6 mutant in patient-derived MLLr pre-B ALL cells induced rapid depletion from cell culture in competitive-growth assays. Furthermore, RI-BPI treatment resulted in cell cycle arrest, impaired colony forming ability and inhibited leukemia initiation in transplant recipient mice. Importantly, RI-BPI in combination with standard chemotherapy Vincristine exerted more potent effects on killing MLLr pre-B ALL cells than either agent alone.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that aberrant BCL6 expression levels are important for disease progression, and that pharmacological inhibition of BCL6 augments responsiveness to standard chemotherapy in the treatment of MLLr pre-B ALL.


Hurtz: Incyte: Research Funding. Armstrong: Cyteir: Consultancy; Imago: Consultancy; C4 Therapeutics: Consultancy; Epizyme: Consultancy.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.