A KMT2A-AFF1 gene regulatory network highlights the role of core transcription factors and reveals the regulatory logic of key downstream target genes.
Harman JR., Thorne R., Jamilly M., Tapia M., Crump NT., Rice S., Beveridge R., Morrissey E., de Bruijn MFTR., Roberts I., Roy A., Fulga TA., Milne TA.
Regulatory interactions mediated by transcription factors (TFs) make up complex networks that control cellular behavior. Fully understanding these gene regulatory networks (GRNs) offers greater insight into the consequences of disease-causing perturbations than can be achieved by studying single TF binding events in isolation. Chromosomal translocations of the lysine methyltransferase 2A (KMT2A) gene produce KMT2A fusion proteins such as KMT2A-AFF1 (previously MLL-AF4), causing poor prognosis acute lymphoblastic leukemias (ALLs) that sometimes relapse as acute myeloid leukemias (AMLs). KMT2A-AFF1 drives leukemogenesis through direct binding and inducing the aberrant overexpression of key genes, such as the anti-apoptotic factor BCL2 and the proto-oncogene MYC However, studying direct binding alone does not incorporate possible network-generated regulatory outputs, including the indirect induction of gene repression. To better understand the KMT2A-AFF1-driven regulatory landscape, we integrated ChIP-seq, patient RNA-seq, and CRISPR essentiality screens to generate a model GRN. This GRN identified several key transcription factors such as RUNX1 that regulate target genes downstream of KMT2A-AFF1 using feed-forward loop (FFL) and cascade motifs. A core set of nodes are present in both ALL and AML, and CRISPR screening revealed several factors that help mediate response to the drug venetoclax. Using our GRN, we then identified a KMT2A-AFF1:RUNX1 cascade that represses CASP9, as well as KMT2A-AFF1-driven FFLs that regulate BCL2 and MYC through combinatorial TF activity. This illustrates how our GRN can be used to better connect KMT2A-AFF1 behavior to downstream pathways that contribute to leukemogenesis, and potentially predict shifts in gene expression that mediate drug response.