Unforeseen new drug target discovered for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

Scientists find that inhibiting the METTL3 gene destroys AML cells without harming non-cancerous blood cells

Acute myeloid leukamia (AML) cells. Genomic research has found that AML cannot survive without the METTL3 gene, making it a strong therapeutic target. Image credit: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP)

A study has found an unexpected new drug target for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) that could open new avenues to develop effective treatments against this potentially lethal disease. Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Gurdon Institute and their collaborators show that inhibiting the METTL3 gene destroys human and mouse AML cells without harming non-leukaemic blood cells.

Reported in the journal Nature today (27 November), the study goes on to reveal why METTL3 is required for AML cell survival, by deciphering the new mechanism it uses to regulate several other leukaemia genes.

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is an aggressive blood cancer that affects people of all ages, often requiring months of intensive chemotherapy and prolonged hospital admissions. It develops in cells in the bone marrow crowding out the healthy cells, in turn leading to life-threatening infections and bleeding. Mainstream AML treatments have remained unchanged for decades and fewer than one in three people survive the cancer.

To identify potential new ways to treat AML, the researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to screen cancer cells for vulnerable points. They created mouse leukaemia cells with mutations in the genes that may be targeted in human AML cells and systematically tested each gene, finding which were essential for AML survival.

The researchers ended up with 46 likely candidate genes, many of which produce proteins that could modify RNA. Amongst these, METTL3 was one of the genes with the strongest effect. They found that whilst it was essential for the survival of AML cells, it was not required for healthy blood cells, making it a good potential drug target.

“New treatments for AML are desperately needed and we have been looking for genes that would be good drug targets. We identified the methyl transferase enzyme METTL3 as a highly viable target against AML. Our study will inspire pharmaceutical efforts to find drugs that specifically inhibit METTL3 to treat AML.”

Professor Tony Kouzarides Joint project leader from the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge

For proteins to be produced in a cell, the DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA, which is then translated into the proteins that the cell needs. However, modifications to the RNA can control if a protein is produced. This is a recently-discovered type of gene regulation called RNA editing.

Having found a potential target in METTL3, the researchers investigated how it worked. They discovered that the protein produced by METTL3 bound to the beginning of 126 different genes, including several required for AML cell survival. Then, as RNAs were produced, the METTL3 protein added methyl groups to their middle section, something which had not been previously observed.

The researchers found that these middle methyl groups increased the ability of the RNAs to be translated into proteins. They then showed that when METTL3 was inhibited, no methyl groups were added to the RNA. This prevented the production of their essential proteins so the AML cells started dying.

“This study uncovered an entirely new mechanism of gene regulation in AML that operates through modifications of RNA. We discovered that inhibiting the methyl transferase activity of METTL3 would stop the translation of a whole set of proteins that the leukaemia needs. This mechanism shows that a drug to inhibit methylation could be effective against AML without affecting normal cells.”

Dr Konstantinos Tzelepis One of the first authors on the study from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

“AML is a feared disease that affects people all around the world, our treatments have changed little for decades and outcomes remain poor for the majority of patients. We believed that we had to think differently and look in new places for ways to treat the disease and in METTL3 we have found an exciting new target for drugs. We hope that this discovery will lead to more effective treatments that will improve the survival and the quality of life of patients with AML.”

Dr George Vassiliou Joint project leader from the Sanger Institute and Consultant Haematologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust

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Notes to Editor

Funding

This work was supported by Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, the Kay Kendall Leukemia Fund and Bloodwise.

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Selected websites

  • Wellcome Trust/ Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute

    Named after its co-founder, Nobel Laureate Sir John Gurdon, the Gurdon Institute is a world-leading centre for research into the fundamental processes of biology and development, and how these go wrong in diseases such as cancer. More than 240 scientists work in the Institute’s purpose-built laboratories on projects ranging from breast cancer and brain development to liver regeneration and leukaemia. Many have made pioneering contributions to the fields of basic cell biology, cellular reprogramming, epigenetics and DNA repair.

    Institute scientists use a range of model systems such as yeast, nematode worms, fruit flies, frogs, mammalian cells and organoids to study development and disease at the level of molecules, cells and tissues. Research conducted at the Institute has so far led to 11 spin-out companies (including Abcam, CellCentric, MISSION Therapeutics and Gen2 Neuroscience) and several candidate therapeutics have entered clinical trials. One of these, olaparib (Lynparza), has been approved in the UK, Europe and the USA for use against ovarian cancers. www.gurdon.cam.ac.uk

  • Cancer Research UK

    Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity it conducts research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Research activities are carried out in institutes, universities and hospitals across the UK, both by the charity’s own employees and by its grant-funded researchers. It also provides information about cancer and runs campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the disease and influencing public policy. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. To celebrate its 25th year in 2018, the Institute is sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. Find out more at www.sanger.ac.uk or follow @sangerinstitute

  • Wellcome

    Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate. www.wellcome.ac.uk