Elevated levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) significantly ameliorate clinical outcomes for patients with beta-hemoglobinopathies, such as sickle cell disease (SCD). The only FDA-approved drug for treating SCD through inducing HbF is hydroxyurea, however the mechanism of action is unknown with variable effectiveness among patients. Thus, there remains a strong interest to identify more robust means of upregulating HbF, such as specific inhibition of HbF repressors. BCL11A and LRF are well-characterized transcription factors that independently repress the fetal type b-globin like genes HBG1 and HBG2 but their therapeutic potential is limited by challenging druggability and critical developmental function. However, upstream regulation of these factors, such as post-transcriptional mechanisms, are not well studied and may house novel therapeutic targets. To this end, we employed a CRISPR/Cas9 based screening approach to interrogate a library of RNA binding proteins (RBP) in the context of HbF regulation. Using HUDEP2 cells, a human adult-type erythroid progenitor cell line, we screened 341 human RBPs and identified four candidate RBPs, none of which have previously been implicated in HbF regulation. Of these candidates, RNA Binding Motif 12 (RBM12) showed the greatest level of HbF induction following in vitro depletion.

Depletion of RBM12 protein in HUDEP2 cells and human CD34 + hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPC) via CRISPR/Cas9 editing raised HbF production 2-4 fold as assessed by HbF flow cytometry, HBG1/2 mRNA, and protein (γ-globin). Cell viability and maturation of RBM12 perturbed cells were largely intact. Additionally, RBM12 depletion in CD34 + HSPCs derived from SCD patients resulted in reduced percentage of sickled cells under hypoxic conditions. Unexpectedly, reduction of RBM12 had minimal effect on BCL11A and LRF expression suggesting that RBM12 may regulate HbF through a pathway that is indirectly related or independent of these transcription factors.

RBM12 is an RBP that is widely expressed across diverse cell types and contains multiple RNA recognition motifs (RRM). While it has been implicated in various cancers and neurological disorders, its functions are not well studied. As an RBP, RBM12 can carry out several roles of post-transcriptional regulation, such as pre-mRNA splicing, mRNA transport, stabilization, and translation. As these activities are executed in different cellular compartments, we set out to narrow down RBM12 function by assessing its subcellular localization. Immunofluorescence staining revealed strong nuclear presence of RBM12, suggesting that it functions via mRNA biogenesis and/or processing. RNASeq and LC-MS/MS analysis of RBM12 KO CD34 + HSPCs revealed modest changes in the transcriptome and proteome. In order to gain mechanistic insight into RBM12 in the context of HbF regulation, we performed cDNA rescue experiments in RBM12-deficient HUDEP2 clones. Overexpression of full length RBM12 restored HbF repression. Notably, four out of the five RRMs were dispensable for HbF silencing, but RRM1 was essential for this activity. Interestingly, an extended form of RRM1 was also sufficient for HbF silencing. Mechanistic studies of this RRM1 module are underway and will be discussed.

In sum, the identification of RBM12 as a regulator of HbF production represents a previously undescribed post-transcriptional layer of hemoglobin gene regulation. In pursuing this path, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of this understudied RBP in the context of HbF regulation which might in turn lead to the identification of potential therapeutic targets for the treatment of SCD and other hemoglobinopathies.


Blobel:Pfizer: Consultancy; Fulcrum Therapeutics, Inc.: Consultancy.

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