Year 1Escape from apoptosis and increased genomic instability resulting from defective DNA repair processes are often associated with cancer development, aging and stem cell defects. Adult stem cells play an essential role in the maintenance of normal tissue. Removal of superfluous, damaged and/or dangerous cells is a critical process to maintain tissue homeostasis and protect against malignancy. Yet much remains to be learned about the mechanisms by which normal stem and progenitor cells respond to environmental and therapeutic genotoxic insults. Here, we have used the hematopoietic system as a model to investigate how cancer-associated mutations affect the behaviors of specific stem and progenitor cell populations. Our work during the first year of the CIRM New Faculty award has revealed the differential use of DNA double-strand break repair pathways in quiescent and proliferative hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which has clear implications for human health. Most adult stem cell populations, including HSCs, remain in a largely quiescent (G0), or resting, cell cycle state. This quiescent status is widely considered to be an essential protective mechanism stem cells use to minimize endogenous stress caused by cellular respiration and DNA replication. However, our studies demonstrate that quiescence may also have detrimental and mutagenic effects. We found both quiescent and proliferating HSCs to be similarly protected from DNA damaging genotoxic insults due to the expression and activation of cell type specific protective mechanisms. We demonstrate that both quiescent and proliferating HSCs resolve DNA damage with similar efficiencies but use different repair pathways. Quiescent HSCs preferentially utilize nonhomologous end joining (NHEJ) - an error-prone DNA repair mechanism - while proliferating HSCs essentially use homologous recombination (HR) - a high-fidelity DNA repair mechanism. Furthermore, we show that NHEJ-mediated repair in HSCs is associated with acquisition of genomic rearrangements. These findings suggest that the quiescent status of HSCs can, on one hand, be protective by limiting cell-intrinsic stresses but, on the other hand, be detrimental by forcing HSCs to repair damaged DNA with an error-prone mechanism that can generate mutations and eventually cause hematological malignancies. Our results have broad implications for cancer development and provide the beginning of a molecular understanding of why HSCs, despite being protected, are more likely than other cells in the hematopoietic system (i.e., myeloid progenitors) to become transformed. They also partially explain the loss of function occurring in HSCs with age, as it is likely that over a lifetime HSCs have acquired and accumulated numerous NHEJ-mediated mutations that hinder their cellular performance. Finally, our findings may have direct clinical applications for minimizing secondary cancer development. Many solid tumors and hematological malignancies are currently treated with DNA damaging agents, which may result in therapy-induced myeloid leukemia. Our results suggest that it might be beneficial to induce HSCs to cycle before initiating treatment, to avoid inadvertently mutating the patient's own HSCs by forcing them to undergo DNA repair using an error-prone mutagenic mechanism.
Year 2Our work during the second year of the CIRM New Faculty award has lead to the discovery of at least one key reason why blood-forming stem cells can be susceptible to developing genetic mutations leading to adult leukemia or bone marrow failures. Most adult stem cells, including hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), are maintained in a quiescent or resting state in vivo. Quiescence is widely considered to be an essential protective mechanism for stem cells that minimizes endogenous stress associated with cellular division and DNA replication. However, we demonstrate that HSC quiescence can also have detrimental effects. We found that HSCs have unique cell-intrinsic mechanisms ensuring their survival in response to ionizing irradiation (IR), which include enhanced pro-survival gene expression and strong activation of a p53-mediated DNA damage response. We show that quiescent and proliferating HSCs are equally radioprotected but use different types of DNA repair mechanisms. We describe how nonhomologous end joining (NHEJ)-mediated DNA repair in quiescent HSCs is associated with acquisition of genomic rearrangements, which can persist in vivo and contribute to hematopoietic abnormalities. These results demonstrate that quiescence is a double-edged sword that, while mostly beneficial, can render HSCs intrinsically vulnerable to mutagenesis following DNA damage. Our findings have important implications for cancer biology. They indicate that quiescent stem cells, either normal or cancerous, are particularly prone to the acquisition of mutations, which overturns the current dogma that cancer development absolutely requires cell proliferation. They help explain why quiescent leukemic stem cells (LSC), which currently survive treatment in most leukemia, do in fact represent a dangerous reservoir for additional mutations that can contribute to disease relapse and/or evolution, and stress the urgent need to develop effective anti-LSC therapies. They also have direct clinical applications for minimizing the risk of therapy-related leukemia following treatment of solid tumors with cytotoxic agents. By showing that proliferating HSCs have significantly decreased mutation rates, with no associated change in radioresistance, they suggest that it would be beneficial to induce HSCs to enter the cycle prior to therapy with DNA-damaging agents in order to enhance DNA repair fidelity in HSCs and thus reduce the risk of leukemia development. While this possibility remains to be tested in the clinic using FDA approved agents such as G-CSF and prostaglandin, it offers exciting new directions for limiting the deleterious side effects of cancer treatment. Our findings also have broad biological implications for tissue function. While the DNA repair mechanism used by quiescent HSCs can indeed produce defective cells, it is likely not detrimental for the organism in evolutionary terms. The blood stem cell system is designed to support the body through its sexually reproductive years, so the genome can be passed along. The ability of quiescent HSCs to survive and quickly undergo DNA repair in response to genotoxic stress supports this goal, and the risk of acquiring enough damaging mutations in these years is minimal. The problem occurs with age, as these long-lived cells have spent a lifetime responding to naturally occurring insults as well as the effects of X-rays, medications and chemotherapies. In this context, the accumulation of NHEJ-mediated DNA misrepair and resultant genomic damages could be a major contributor to the loss of function occurring with age in HSCs, and the development of age-related hematological disorders. We are now using this work on normal HSCs as a platform to understand at the molecular level how the DNA damage response and the mechanisms of DNA repair become deregulated in leukemic HSCs during the development of hematological malignancies.
Year 3Our work during the third year of the CIRM New Faculty award has extended and broaden up our investigations in two novel directions that are still within the scope of our initial Aims: 1) identifying novel stress-response mechanisms that preserve hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) fitness during periods of metabolic stress; and 2) understanding how deregulations in DNA repair mechanisms contribute to the aberrant functions of old and transformed HSCs. Blood development is organized hierarchically, starting with a rare but well-defined population of HSCs that give rise to a series of committed progenitors and mature cells with exclusive functional and immunophenotypic properties. HSCs are the only cells within the hematopoietic system that self-renew for life, whereas other hematopoietic cells are short-lived and committed to the transient production of mature blood cells. Under steady-state conditions, HSCs are a largely quiescent, slowly cycling cell population, which, in response to environmental cues, are capable of dramatic expansion and contraction to ensure proper homeostatic replacement of all blood cells. While considerable work has deciphered the molecular networks controlling HSC activity, still little is known about how these mechanisms are integrated at the cellular level to ensure life-long maintenance of a functional HSC compartment. HSCs reside in hypoxic niches in the bone marrow microenvironment, and are mostly kept quiescent in order to minimize stress and the potential for damage associated with cellular respiration and cell division. Last year, we showed that HSCs can also engage specialized response mechanisms that protect them from the killing effect of environmental stresses such as ionizing radiation (IR) (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010). We demonstrated that long-lived HSCs, in contrast to short-lived myeloid progenitors, have enhanced expression of pro-survival members of the bcl2 gene family and robust induction of p53-mediated DNA damage response, which ensures their specific survival and repair following IR exposure. We reasoned that HSCs have other unique protective features, which allow them to contend with a variety of cellular insults and damaged cellular components while maintaining their life-long functionality and genomic integrity. Now, we show that HSCs use the self-catabolic process of autophagy as an essential survival mechanism in response to metabolic stress in vitro or nutriment deprivation in vivo. Last year, we also reported that although HSCs largely survive genotoxic stress their DNA repair mechanisms make them intrinsically vulnerable to mutagenesis (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010). We showed that their unique quiescent cell cycle status restricts them to the use of the error-prone non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) DNA repair mechanism, which renders them susceptible to genomic instability and transformation. These findings provide the beginning of an understanding of why HSCs, despite being protected at the cellular level, are more likely than other hematopoietic cells to initiate blood disorders (Blanpain et al., Cell Stem Cell, review, 2011). Such hematological diseases increase with age and include immunosenescence (a decline in the adaptive immune system) as well as the development of myeloproliferative neoplasms, leukemia, lymphoma and bone marrow failure syndromes. Many of these features of aging have been linked to changes in the biological functions of old HSCs. Gene expression studies and analysis of genetically modified mice have suggested that errors in DNA repair and loss of genomic stability in HSCs are driving forces for aging and cancer development. However, what causes such failures in maintaining HSC functionality over time remains to be established. We therefore asked whether the constant utilization of error-prone NHEJ repair mechanism and resulting misrepair of DNA damage over a lifetime could contribute to the loss of function and susceptibility to transformation observed in old HSCs. Similarly, we started investigating how mutagenic DNA repair could contribute to the genomic instability of HSC-derived leukemic stem cells (LSC).
Year 4Our work during the fourth year of the CIRM New Faculty award has been focused on achieving the goals set forth last year for the two first aims of the grant: 1) identifying the stress-response mechanisms that preserve hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) fitness during periods of metabolic stress; and 2) understanding how deregulations in DNA repair mechanisms contribute to the aberrant functions of old HSCs and the aging of the blood system.
Blood development is organized hierarchically, starting with a rare but well-defined population of HSCs that give rise to a series of committed progenitors and mature cells with exclusive functional and immunophenotypic properties. HSCs are the only cells within the hematopoietic system that self-renew for life, whereas other hematopoietic cells are short-lived and committed to the transient production of mature blood cells. Under steady-state conditions, HSCs are a largely quiescent, slowly cycling cell population, which, in response to environmental cues, are capable of dramatic expansion and contraction to ensure proper homeostatic replacement of all needed blood cells. While considerable work has deciphered the molecular networks controlling HSC activity, still little is known about how these mechanisms are integrated at the cellular level to ensure life-long maintenance of a functional HSC compartment.
HSCs reside in hypoxic niches in the bone marrow microenvironment, and are mostly kept quiescent in order to minimize stress and the potential for damage associated with cellular respiration and cell division. Previously, we found that HSCs also have a unique pro-survival wiring of their apoptotic machinery, which contribute to their enhanced resistance to genotoxic stress (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010). Now, we identified autophagy as an essential mechanism protecting HSCs from metabolic stress (Warr et al., Nature, in press). We show that HSCs, in contrast to their short-lived myeloid progeny, robustly induce autophagy following ex vivo cytokine withdrawal and in vivo caloric restriction. We demonstrate that FoxO3a is critical to maintain a gene expression program that poise HSCs for rapid induction of autophagy upon starvation. Notably, we find that old HSCs retain an intact FoxO3a-driven pro-autophagy gene program, and that ongoing autophagy is needed to mitigate an energy crisis and allow their survival. Our results demonstrate that autophagy is essential for the life-long maintenance of the HSC compartment and for supporting an old, failing blood system.
Previous studies have also suggested that increased DNA damage could contribute to the functional decline of old HSCs. Therefore, we set up to investigate whether the reliance on the error-prone non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) DNA repair mechanism we previously identified in young HSCs (Mohrin et al., Cell Stem Cell, 2010) could render old HSCs vulnerable to genomic instability. We confirm that old HSCs have increased numbers of γH2AX DNA foci but find no evidence of associated DNA damage. Instead, we show that γH2AX staining in old HSCs entirely co-localized with nucleolar markers and correlated with a significant decrease in ribosome biogenesis. Moreover, we observe high levels of replication stress in proliferating old HSCs leading to severe functional impairment in condition requiring proliferation expansion such as transplantation assays. Collectively, our results illuminate new features of the aging HSC compartment, which are likely to contribute to several facets of age-related blood defects (Flach et al, manuscript in preparation).