Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is an aggressive hematological malignancy with abnormal progenitor self-renewal and defective white blood cell differentiation. Its pathogenesis comprises subversion of transcriptional regulation, through mutation and by hijacking normal chromatin regulation. Kat2a is a histone acetyltransferase central to promoter activity, that we recently associated with stability of pluripotency networks, and identified as a genetic vulnerability in AML. Through combined chromatin profiling and single-cell transcriptomics of a conditional knockout mouse, we demonstrate that Kat2a contributes to leukemia propagation through preservation of leukemia stem-like cells. Kat2a loss impacts transcription factor binding and reduces transcriptional burst frequency in a subset of gene promoters, generating enhanced variability of transcript levels. Destabilization of target programs shifts leukemia cell fate out of self-renewal into differentiation. We propose that control of transcriptional variability is central to leukemia stem-like cell propagation, and establish a paradigm exploitable in different tumors and distinct stages of cancer evolution.
Keywords: Kat2a; Single-cell RNA seq; acute myeloid leukaemia; cancer biology; chromosomes; epigenetics; gene expression; mouse; transcriptional bursting; transcriptional heterogeneity.
Less than 30% of patients with acute myeloid leukaemia – an aggressive cancer of the white blood cells – survive five years post-diagnosis. This disease disrupts the maturation of white blood cells, resulting in the accumulation of immature cells that multiply and survive but are incapable of completing their maturation process. Amongst these, a group of cancer cells known as leukemic stem cells is responsible for continually replenishing the leukaemia, thus perpetuating its growth. Cancers develop when cells in the body acquire changes or mutations to their genetic makeup. The mutations that lead to acute myeloid leukaemia often affect the activity of genes known as epigenetic regulators. These genes regulate which proteins and other molecules cells make by controlling the way in which cells ‘read’ their genetic instructions. The epigenetic regulator Kat2a is thought to ‘tune’ the frequency at which cells read their genetic instructions. This tuning mechanism decreases random fluctuations in the execution of the instructions cells receive to make proteins and other molecules. In turn, this helps to ensure that individual cells of the same type behave in a similar way, for example by keeping leukaemia cells in an immature state. Here, Domingues, Kulkarni et al. investigated whether interfering with Kat2a can make acute myeloid leukaemia less aggressive by allowing the immature white blood cells to mature. Domingues, Kulkarni et al. genetically engineered mice to remove Kat2a from blood cells on demand and then inserted a mutation that causes acute myeloid leukaemia. The experiments showed that the loss of Kat2a delayed the development of leukaemia in the mice and progressively depleted leukaemia stem cells, causing the disease to become less aggressive. The results also showed that loss of Kat2a caused more fluctuations in how the white blood cells read their genetic code, which resulted in more variability in the molecules they produced and increased the tendency of the cells to mature. These findings establish that loss of Kat2a causes leukaemia stem cells to mature and stop multiplying by untuning the frequency at which the cells read their genetic instructions. In the future, it may be possible to develop drugs that target human KAT2A to treat acute myeloid leukaemia.
© 2020, Domingues et al.