Mechanistic studies in human cancer have relied heavily on cell lines and mouse models, but are limited by in vitro adaptation and species context issues, respectively. More recent efforts have utilized patient-derived xenografts; however, these are hampered by variable genetic background, inability to study early events, and practical issues with availability/reproducibility. We report here an efficient, reproducible model of T-cell leukemia in which lentiviral transduction of normal human cord blood yields aggressive leukemia that appears indistinguishable from natural disease. We utilize this synthetic model to uncover a role for oncogene-induced HOXB activation which is operative in leukemia cells-of-origin and persists in established tumors where it defines a novel subset of patients distinct from other known genetic subtypes and with poor clinical outcome. We show further that anterior HOXB genes are specifically activated in human T-ALL by an epigenetic mechanism and confer growth advantage in both pre-leukemia cells and established clones.