RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) regulate many aspects of transcription and translation in a cell- and tissue-specific manner and are frequently dysregulated in malignancy. We systematically evaluated RBPs preferentially required in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) over other forms of cancer or normal hematopoietic precursors using a CRISPR/Cas9 domain-based, loss-of-function screen targeting 490 classical RBPs with 2,900 sgRNAs (Fig. A). This screen was performed in cells lines representing AML, T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), and lung adenocarcinoma (LUAD) and revealed multiple RBPs preferentially required for AML survival, but not for T-ALL or LUAD survival. We identified genes encoding 21 RBPs that were >3-fold depleted in AML cells and significantly overexpressed in AML patient samples versus normal adult CD34+ precursors (p-value < 0.05; Fig. B).

Amongst RBPs required and upregulated in AML was RBM39, an RBP described to be involved in a number of cellular processes and to interact with key splicing proteins SF3B1 and U2AF2. Genetic ablation of Rbm39 in mouse MLL-AF9 leukemia cells dramatically delayed AML development and progression (Fig. C). In parallel, it has recently been described that a class of clinically-validated anti-cancer sulfonamide compounds (including indisulam and E7820) mediate RBM39 degradation as their dominant cellular mechanism of action. This occurs via novel interactions with the DCAF15 adapter protein of the CUL4/Ddb1 ubiquitin ligase complex with RBM39 as a neo-substrate. Treatment of MOLM-13 cells xenografted into mice with indisulam conferred significant anti-leukemic effects and improved overall survival (Fig. D).

To explore the mechanism of RBM39 dependence in AML, we performed proteomic analyses of RBM39 interacting proteins in MOLM-13 cells as well as transcriptome-wide analysis of RBM39 RNA binding by enhanced UV cross-linking and immunoprecipitation (eCLIP) in the same cells. RBM39 physically interacted with an entire network of RBPs identified by our CRISPR screen as crucial for AML cell survival in addition to interacting with the core SF3b splicing complex. Further, anti-RBM39 eCLIP revealed RBM39 binding to exonic regions and most enriched at exon/intron borders at 5' and 3' splice sites of pre-mRNA (Fig. E), suggesting a prominent role of RBM39 in regulating splicing. Consistent with this, RNA-sequencing of AML cells following RBM39 deletion revealed significant effects of RBM39 loss on RNA splicing, most prominently causing increased cassette exon skipping (Fig. F).

Recent studies suggest that myeloid leukemias with mutations in RNA splicing factors are sensitized to pharmacologic perturbation of RNA splicing. Analysis of the effects of RBM39 degrading compounds over a panel of 18 AML cells revealed that leukemia cells bearing splicing factor mutations or with high DCAF15 expression were the most sensitive to treatment (Fig. G). Genetic introduction of SF3B1, SRSF2, or U2AF1 hotspot mutations in K562 or NALM6 cells resulted in a 20-50% reduction in IC50 in response to sulfonamides.

We next performed RNA sequencing of isogenic K562 cells with or without knockin of SF3B1K700E and SRSF2P95H mutations into the endogenous loci, and treated at the IC50 of E7820 or E7107, a small molecule that inhibits the SF3b core spliceosome complex. Treatment with either drug dramatically increased cassette exon skipping events and intron retention relative to DMSO control, with greater effects in splicing mutant cells. However, at equipotent doses, E7820 markedly increased mis-splicing compared with E7107. Furthermore, E7820 treatment resulted in mis-splicing of a number of RBP targets identified in our CRISPR screen as being required for AML survival, including SUPT6H, hnRNPH, and SRSF10, as well as RBM3 and U2AF2, consistent with previous observations (Fig. H).

Here through systematic evaluation of RBPs across several cancers, we identify RBPs specifically required in AML. In so doing we identify a network of functionally and physically interacting RBPs upregulated in AML over normal precursors. Genetic or pharmacologic elimination one such RBP, RBM39, led to aberrant splicing of multiple members of this RBP network as well as of transcriptional regulators required for AML survival. These data suggest important clinical potential for anti-cancer sulfonamide treatment in splicing mutant myeloid leukemias.


Uehara:Eisai: Employment. Owa:Eisai: Employment.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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