Therapeutic targeting of metabolic vulnerabilities in cancers with MLL3/4-COMPASS epigenetic regulator mutations

J Clin Invest. 2023 Jul 3;133(13):e169993. doi: 10.1172/JCI169993.


Epigenetic status-altering mutations in chromatin-modifying enzymes are a feature of human diseases, including many cancers. However, the functional outcomes and cellular dependencies arising from these mutations remain unresolved. In this study, we investigated cellular dependencies, or vulnerabilities, that arise when enhancer function is compromised by loss of the frequently mutated COMPASS family members MLL3 and MLL4. CRISPR dropout screens in MLL3/4-depleted mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) revealed synthetic lethality upon suppression of purine and pyrimidine nucleotide synthesis pathways. Consistently, we observed a shift in metabolic activity toward increased purine synthesis in MLL3/4-KO mESCs. These cells also exhibited enhanced sensitivity to the purine synthesis inhibitor lometrexol, which induced a unique gene expression signature. RNA-Seq identified the top MLL3/4 target genes coinciding with suppression of purine metabolism, and tandem mass tag proteomic profiling further confirmed upregulation of purine synthesis in MLL3/4-KO cells. Mechanistically, we demonstrated that compensation by MLL1/COMPASS was underlying these effects. Finally, we demonstrated that tumors with MLL3 and/or MLL4 mutations were highly sensitive to lometrexol in vitro and in vivo, both in culture and in animal models of cancer. Our results depicted a targetable metabolic dependency arising from epigenetic factor deficiency, providing molecular insight to inform therapy for cancers with epigenetic alterations secondary to MLL3/4 COMPASS dysfunction.

Keywords: Colorectal cancer; Epigenetics; Genetics; Metabolism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase / genetics
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Proteomics*


  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase
  • MLL4 protein, mouse