BACKGROUND: Improving the poor prognosis of infant leukaemias remains an unmet clinical need. This disease is a prototypical fusion oncoprotein-driven paediatric cancer, with MLL (KMT2A)-fusions present in most cases. Direct targeting of these driving oncoproteins represents a unique therapeutic opportunity. This rationale led us to initiate a drug screening with the aim of discovering drugs that can block MLL-fusion oncoproteins.
METHODS: A screen for inhibition of MLL-fusion proteins was developed that overcomes the traditional limitations of targeting transcription factors. This luciferase reporter-based screen, together with a secondary western blot screen, was used to prioritize compounds. We characterized the lead compound, disulfiram (DSF), based on its efficient ablation of MLL-fusion proteins. The consequences of drug-induced MLL-fusion inhibition were confirmed by cell proliferation, colony formation, apoptosis assays, RT-qPCR, in vivo assays, RNA-seq and ChIP-qPCR and ChIP-seq analysis. All statistical tests were two-sided.
RESULTS: Drug-induced inhibition of MLL-fusion proteins by DSF resulted in a specific block of colony formation in MLL-rearranged cells in vitro, induced differentiation and impeded leukaemia progression in vivo. Mechanistically, DSF abrogates MLL-fusion protein binding to DNA, resulting in epigenetic changes and down-regulation of leukaemic programmes setup by the MLL-fusion protein.
CONCLUSION: DSF can directly inhibit MLL-fusion proteins and demonstrate antitumour activity both in vitro and in vivo, providing, to our knowledge, the first evidence for a therapy that directly targets the initiating oncogenic MLL-fusion protein.