Haematopoietic stem cells (HSC) are situated at the apex of the haematopoietic differentiation hierarchy, ensuring the life-long supply of mature haematopoietic cells and forming a reservoir to replenish the haematopoietic system in case of emergency such as acute blood loss. To maintain a balanced production of all mature lineages and at the same time secure a stem cell reservoir, intricate regulatory programs have evolved to control multi-lineage differentiation and self-renewal in haematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs). Leukaemogenic mutations commonly disrupt these regulatory programs causing a block in differentiation with simultaneous enhancement of proliferation. Here, we briefly summarize key aspects of HSPC regulatory programs, and then focus on their disruption by leukaemogenic fusion genes containing the mixed lineage leukaemia (MLL) gene. Using MLL as an example, we explore important questions of wider significance that are still under debate, including the importance of cell of origin, to what extent leukaemia oncogenes impose specific regulatory programs and the relevance of leukaemia stem cells for disease development and prognosis. Finally, we suggest that disruption of stem cell regulatory programs is likely to play an important role in many other pathologies including ageing-associated regenerative failure.
Keywords: ALL; AML; HSPC; MLL gene.