CTCF boundary remodels chromatin domain and drives aberrant HOX gene transcription in acute myeloid leukemia

Huacheng Luo, Fei Wang, Jie Zha, Haoli Li, Bowen Yan, Qinghua Du, Fengchun Yang, Amin Sobh, Christopher Vulpe, Leylah Drusbosky, Christopher Cogle, Iouri Chepelev, Bing Xu, Stephen D. Nimer, Jonathan Licht, Yi Qiu, Baoan Chen, Mingjiang Xu and Suming Huang

Key points

  • CRISPR-Cas9 library screening identifies CBS7/9 boundary that defines an aberrant HOXA chromatin domain and HOX gene transcription in AML

  • Attenuation of CBS7/9 boundary impairs the leukemic transcription program and attenuates leukemic progressions in AML mouse models


HOX gene dysregulation is a common feature of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The molecular mechanisms underlying aberrant HOX gene expression and associated AML pathogenesis remain unclear. The nuclear protein CCCTC-binding factor (CTCF), when bound to insulator sequences, constrains temporal HOX gene expression patterns within confined chromatin domains for normal development. Here, we employed targeted pooled CRISPR-Cas9 knockout library screening to interrogate the function of CTCF boundaries in the HOX gene loci. We discovered that the CTCF binding site located between HOXA7 and HOXA9 genes (CBS7/9) is critical for establishing and maintaining aberrant HOXA9-HOXA13 gene expression in AML. Disruption of the CBS7/9 boundary resulted in spreading of repressive H3K27me3 into the posterior active HOXA chromatin domain that subsequently impaired enhancer/promoter chromatin accessibility and disrupted ectopic long-range interactions among the posterior HOXA genes. Consistent with the role of the CBS7/9 boundary in HOXA locus chromatin organization, attenuation of the CBS7/9 boundary function reduced posterior HOXA gene expression and altered myeloid specific transcriptome profiles important for pathogenesis of myeloid malignancies. Furthermore, heterozygous deletion of the CBS7/9 chromatin boundary in the HOXA locus reduced human leukemic blast burden and enhanced survival of both transplanted AML cell xenograft and patient derived xenograft (PDX) mouse models. Thus, the CTCF boundary not only constrains the normal gene expression program, but also plays a role in maintaining the oncogenic transcription program for leukemic transformation. The CTCF boundaries may serve as novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of myeloid malignancies.

  • Submitted November 2, 2017.
  • Accepted May 7, 2018.