We here describe a leukemogenic role of the homeobox gene UNCX, activated by epigenetic modifications in acute myeloid leukemia (AML). We found the ectopic activation of UNCX in a leukemia patient harboring a t(7;10)(p22;p14) translocation, in 22 of 61 of additional cases [a total of 23 positive patients out of 62 (37.1%)], and in 6 of 75 (8%) of AML cell lines. UNCX is embedded within a lowmethylation region (canyon) and encodes for a transcription factor involved in somitogenesis and neurogenesis, with specific expression in the eye, brain, and kidney. UNCX expression turned out to be associated, and significantly correlated, with DNA methylation increase at its canyon borders based on data in our patients and in archived data of patients from The Cancer Genome Atlas. UNCX-positive and -negative patients displayed significant differences in their gene expression profiles. An enrichment of genes involved in cell proliferation and differentiation, such as MAP2K1 and CCNA1, was revealed. Similar results were obtained in UNCX-transduced CD34+ cells, associated with low proliferation and differentiation arrest. Accordingly, we showed that UNCX expression characterizes leukemia cells at their early stage of differentiation, mainly M2 and M3 subtypes carrying wild-type NPM1. We also observed that UNCX expression significantly associates with an increased frequency of acute promyelocytic leukemia with PML-RARA and AML with t(8;21)(q22;q22.1); RUNX1-RUNX1T1 classes, according to the World Health Organization disease classification. In summary, our findings suggest a novel leukemogenic role of UNCX, associated with epigenetic modifications and with impaired cell proliferation and differentiation in AML.
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