High expression of the chemokine receptor 4, CXCR4, associated with a negative prognosis in acute myeloid leukemia, is related to hypoxia. Because CXCR4 expression is under the post-transcriptional control of microRNA-146a in normal and leukemic monocytic cells, we first investigated the impact of hypoxia on microRNA-146a and CXCR4 expression during monocytopoiesis and in acute monocytic leukemia. We then analyzed the effects of hypoxia on drug sensitivity of CXCR4-expressing leukemic cells. We found that microRNA-146a is a target of hypoxia-inducible factor-1α or-2α in relation to the stage of monocytopoiesis and the level of hypoxia, and demonstrated the regulation of the microRNA-146a/CXCR4 pathway by hypoxia in monocytes derived from CD34+ cells. Thus, in myeloid leukemic cell lines, hypoxia-mediated control of the microRNA-146a/CXCR4 pathway depends only on the capacity of hypoxia-inducible factor-1α to up-regulate microRNA-146a, which in turn decreases CXCR4 expression. However, at variance with normal monocytic cells and leukemic cell lines, in acute monocytic leukemia overexpressing CXCR4, hypoxia up-modulates microRNA-146a but fails to down-modulate CXCR4 expression. We then investigated the effect of hypoxia on the response of leukemic cells to chemotherapy alone or in combination with stromal-derived factor-1α. We found that hypoxia increases stromal-derived factor-1α-induced survival of leukemic cells by decreasing their sensitivity to anti-leukemic drugs. Altogether, our results demonstrate that hypoxia-mediated regulation of microRNA-146a, which controls CXCR4 expression in monocytic cells, is lost in acute monocytic leukemia, thus contributing to maintaining CXCR4 overexpression and protecting the cells from anti-leukemic drugs in the hypoxic bone marrow microenvironment.
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