Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a severe, life-threatening disorder caused by a single amino acid change (β6Glu→Val) in the adult hemoglobin (Hb) β-chain that causes Hb polymerization with consequent red blood cell (RBC) rigidity, anemia, vaso-occlusive crises, organ damage and reduced life expectancy. The co-inheritance of genetic mutations causing a sustained fetal γ-globin chain production in adult life (hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin, HPFH) decreases sickling and significantly reduces the clinical severity of SCD. HPFH mutations cluster at several loci in the promoters of the two γ-globin genes, HBG1 and HBG2, and, disrupt binding sites for transcriptional repressors (e.g., BCL11A and LRF), leading to elevated levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) representing up to 40% of total hemoglobin tetramers. In addition, SNPs at position -158 of both γ-globin promoters are associated with enhanced γ-globin expression and may identify a putative transcriptional repressor binding site.

Here, we used the CRISPR/Cas9 system to mimic HPFH mutations in the HBG promoters by generating insertion and deletions (InDels) leading to disruption of known and putative binding sites for transcriptional repressors via non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) and microhomology-mediated end joining (MMEJ) DNA repair mechanisms.

Efficient editing of the LRF binding site (≥ 3 γ-globin promoters/cell in >70% of cells) in SCD patient-derived hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells (HSPCs) resulted in a robust, virtually pancellular HbF reactivation and a concomitant reduction in βS-globin levels, recapitulating the phenotype of asymptomatic SCD-HPFH patients. Of note, in RBCs derived from edited HSPCs, HbF levels exceeded 40% of total Hb tetramers, suggesting that CRISPR/Cas9 mediated disruption of the LRF binding site is even more potent than naturally occurring HPFH point mutations in reactivating HbF expression. RBCs derived from edited HSPCs displayed HbF levels sufficient to substantially correct the SCD cell phenotype (~80% of non-sickling RBCs). Although larger deletions (in part generated likely by MMEJ) disrupt more efficiently the LRF binding site, shorter InDels mainly produced by NHEJ, the most active repair mechanism in bona fide hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), were still able to induce a potent γ-globin reactivation and correct the SCD cell phenotype. Interestingly, upon targeting of the -158 site, we observed HBG de-repression, which, however, was mild, indicating that this region contains a sequence that moderately inhibits γ-globin expression in adult cells, consistently with the mild increase in HbF associated with the -158 SNP.

To evaluate the efficiency and the safety of this approach in long-term repopulating HSCs, untreated and edited HSPCs were injected into NSG immunodeficient mice. 16 weeks after transplantation, the engraftment of control and HBG-edited cells was comparable, as analyzed in bone marrow, spleen, thymus and blood. Edited HSCs were capable to differentiate into multiple hematopoietic cell types, with no skewing towards any particular lineage. Importantly, xenotransplantation of HSPCs edited using the gRNAs targeting the LRF binding site demonstrated a high editing efficiency in long-term repopulating HSCs (up to 75%) and a modest reduction in the frequency of deletions likely generated by MMEJ.

Overall, this study identifies the binding site for the LRF repressor as a novel, potent and safe target for a genome editing-based treatment of SCD.


El Nemer:Hemanext: Other: Other. Cavazzana:SmartImmune: Other: Founder.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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