Adult T-cell leukemia-lymphoma (ATL) is an aggressive hematological malignancy of CD4+ T-cells transformed by human T-cell lymphotropic virus-1 (HTLV-1). Most HTLV-1-infected individuals are asymptomatic and only 3-5% of carriers develop ATL. Here, we describe the contribution of aberrant DNA methylation to ATL leukemogenesis. HTLV-1-infected T-cells and their uninfected counterparts were separately isolated based on CADM1 and CD7 expression status, and differentially methylated positions (DMPs) specific to HTLV-infected T-cells were identified through genome-wide DNA methylation profiling. Accumulation of DNA methylation at hypermethylated DMPs correlated strongly with ATL development and progression. In addition, we identified 22 genes down-regulated due to promoter hypermethylation in HTLV-1-infected T-cells, including THEMIS, LAIR1, and RNF130, which negatively regulate T-cell receptor (TCR) signaling. Phosphorylation of ZAP-70, a transducer of TCR signaling, was dysregulated in HTLV-1-infected cell lines but was normalized by re-expression of THEMIS. Therefore, we hypothesized that DNA hypermethylation contributes to growth advantages in HTLV-1-infected cells during ATL leukemogenesis. To test this idea, we investigated the anti-ATL activities of OR-1200 and OR-2100 (OR21), novel decitabine (DAC) prodrugs with enhanced oral bioavailability. Both DAC and OR21 inhibited cell growth, accompanied by global DNA hypomethylation, in xenograft tumors established by implantation of HTLV-1-infected cells. OR21 was less hematotoxic than DAC, whereas tumor growth inhibition was almost identical between the two compounds, making it suitable for long-term treatment of ATL patient-derived xenograft mice. Our results demonstrate that regional DNA hypermethylation is functionally important for ATL leukemogenesis and an effective therapeutic target.
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