The increased heme biosynthesis long observed in leukemia was previously of unknown significance. Heme, synthesized from porphyrin precursors, plays a central role in oxygen metabolism and mitochondrial function, yet little is known about its role in leukemogenesis. Here, we show increased expression of heme biosynthetic genes, including UROD, only in pediatric AML samples that have high MYCN expression. High expression of both UROD and MYCN predicts poor overall survival and unfavorable outcomes in adult AML. Murine leukemic progenitors derived from hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) overexpressing a MYCN cDNA (MYCN-HPCs) require heme/porphyrin biosynthesis, accompanied by increased oxygen consumption, to fully engage in self-renewal and oncogenic transformation. Blocking heme biosynthesis reduced mitochondrial oxygen consumption and markedly suppressed self-renewal. Leukemic progenitors rely on balanced production of heme and heme intermediates, the porphyrins. Porphyrin homeostasis is required because absence of the porphyrin exporter, ABCG2, increased death of leukemic progenitors in vitro and prolonged the survival of mice transplanted with Abcg2-KO MYCN-HPCs. Pediatric AML patients with elevated MYCN mRNA display strong activation of TP53 target genes. Abcg2-KO MYCN-HPCs were rescued from porphyrin toxicity by p53 loss. This vulnerability was exploited to show that treatment with a porphyrin precursor, coupled with the absence of ABCG2, blocked MYCN-driven leukemogenesis in vivo, thereby demonstrating that porphyrin homeostasis is a pathway crucial to MYCN leukemogenesis.
Yu Fukuda, Yao Wang, Shangli Lian, John Lynch, Shinjiro Nagai, Bruce Fanshawe, Ayten Kandilci, Laura J. Janke, Geoffrey Neale, Yiping Fan, Brian P. Sorrentino, Martine F. Roussel, Gerard Grosveld, John D. Schuetz