Background: Research efforts have focused upon uncovering critical leukemia-associated genetic alterations that may be amenable to therapeutic targeting with new drugs. Targeting the oncogenic BCR-ABL1 fusion protein in Philadelphia chromosome-positive B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) with tyrosine kinase inhibitors to shut down constitutive signaling activation and induce leukemia cell cytotoxicity has remarkably improved patients' survival and has established a precision medicine paradigm for kinase-driven leukemias. However, multiple subtypes of B-ALL are driven through non-tyrosine fusion proteins, including the high-risk KMT2A-rearranged (KMT2A-R) subtype common in infants with B-ALL, leaving many patients with insufficient treatment options.

Objectives:KMT2A-R B-ALL is associated with chemoresistance, relapse, and poor survival with a frequency of 75% in infants and 10% in older children/adults with B-ALL. Current intensive multiagent chemotherapy regimens induce significant side effects yet fail to cure the majority of patients, demonstrating continued need for novel therapeutic approaches. The goals of our study were to i) identify signaling molecules required for KMT2A-R B-ALL cell survival, ii) select ALL-associated targets that are not essential in normal tissues, and iii) develop new treatment strategies that may benefit patients with KMT2A-R ALL.

Results: We performed a genome-wide kinome CRISPR screen using the pediatric KMT2A-R cell line SEM and identified DYRK1A among other signaling molecules as required for leukemia cell survival. DYRK1A is a member of the dual-specificity tyrosine phosphorylation-regulated kinase family and has been reported as a critical oncogene in a murine Down syndrome (DS) model of megakaryoblastic leukemia. In normal hematopoiesis, DYRK1A controls the transition from proliferation to quiescence during lymphoid development. Deletion of DYRK1A results in increased numbers of B cells in S-G2-M phase, yet also significantly reduces cell proliferation.

Meta-analysis of ChIP-Seq data from two KMT2A-AFF1 cell lines (SEM and RS4;11) and a human KMT2A-Aff1-FLAG-transduced ALL model demonstrates that both N-terminal (KMT2AN) and C-terminal (AFF1C) and the FLAG-tagged KMT2A-Aff1 fusion directly bind to the DYRK1A promoter. Gene expression and RT-PCR analyses of SEM cells treated with inhibitors against two important KMT2A fusion complex proteins, DOT1L (histone methyltransferase) and menin (tumor suppressor), demonstrate that only menin inhibition induced DYRK1A downregulation. Interestingly, deletion of germline KMT2A in murine B-cells did not decrease DYRK1A expression. Taken together, these results suggest direct transcriptional regulation through the KMT2A fusion complex. Surprisingly, RNA and protein expression of DYRK1A was reduced in KMT2A-R ALL compared to other B-ALL subtypes. We then identified MYC as a potential negative regulator of DYRK1A that could explain the lower RNA and protein expression levels observed. A gain-of-function experiment showed marked downregulation of DYRK1A when MYC was ectopically expressed in murine B-cells, while loss of MYC resulted in DYRK1A upregulation. Parallel analysis of publicly available gene expression data from children with high-risk B-ALL (NCI TARGET database) showed significantly higher MYC RNA expression levels in KMT2A-R ALL as compared to other ALL subtypes, further validating our findings that MYC acts as a negative regulator of DYRK1A. Finally, to assess pharmacologic inhibition, we treated multiple KMT2A-rearranged ALL cell lines with the novel DYRK1A inhibitor EHT 1610 and identified sensitivity to DYRK1A inhibition. We then queried the Achilles database and identified that DYRK1A is not a common essential gene in normal tissues, suggesting minimal potential for on-target/off-tumor effects of DYRK1A inhibition.

Conclusions: We identified a novel mechanism in KMT2A-R ALL in which DYRK1A is positively regulated by the KMT2A fusion protein and negatively regulated by MYC. Genetic deletion and pharmacologic inhibition of DYRK1A resulted in significant growth disadvantage of KMT2A-R ALL cells. While further studies are needed, we predict that combining DYRK1A inhibitors with chemotherapy could decrease relapse risk and improve long-term survival of patients with KMT2A-R B-ALL.

Disclosures

Crispino:MPN Research Foundation: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Sierra Oncology: Consultancy; Scholar Rock: Research Funding; Forma Therapeutics: Research Funding. Tasian:Incyte Corportation: Research Funding; Gilead Sciences: Research Funding; Aleta Biotherapeutics: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Carroll:Astellas Pharmaceuticals: Research Funding; Incyte: Research Funding; Janssen Pharmaceuticals: Consultancy.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.