Self-renewal is the hallmark feature both of normal stem cells and cancer stem cells1. Since the regenerative capacity of normal haematopoietic stem cells is limited by the accumulation of reactive oxygen species and DNA double-strand breaks2,3,4, we speculated that DNA damage might also constrain leukaemic self-renewal and malignant haematopoiesis. Here we show that the histone methyl-transferase MLL4, a suppressor of B-cell lymphoma5,6, is required for stem-cell activity and an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukaemia harbouring the MLL–AF9 oncogene. Deletion of MLL4 enhances myelopoiesis and myeloid differentiation of leukaemic blasts, which protects mice from death related to acute myeloid leukaemia. MLL4 exerts its function by regulating transcriptional programs associated with the antioxidant response. Addition of reactive oxygen species scavengers or ectopic expression of FOXO3 protects MLL4−/− MLL–AF9 cells from DNA damage and inhibits myeloid maturation. Similar to MLL4 deficiency, loss of ATM or BRCA1 sensitizes transformed cells to differentiation, suggesting that myeloid differentiation is promoted by loss of genome integrity. Indeed, we show that restriction-enzyme-induced double-strand breaks are sufficient to induce differentiation of MLL–AF9 blasts, which requires cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21Cip1 (Cdkn1a) activity. In summary, we have uncovered an unexpected tumour-promoting role of genome guardians in enforcing the oncogene-induced differentiation blockade in acute myeloid leukaemia.

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We thank all members of the A. Nussenzweig laboratory, J. Daniel and P. Love for discussions; L. Granger for flow cytometry; M. J. Kruhlak for microscopy; K. Zhao for RNA sequencing; R. Anderson and K. Smith for animal care; K. Naka for the FOXO3 retrovirus; G. Legube for the pBABE-AsiSI-ER plasmid; J. Zuber for pLEPG and pRT3GEPIR plasmids; O. Fernandez-Capetillo for ATRi; and S. John for suggestions. S.A.A. was supported by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and National Cancer Institute grants CA66996 and CA140575. This work was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the Center for Cancer Research, and an Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar in Aging Award to A.N.

Author information

Author notes

    • Robert B. Faryabi
    • , Aysegul V. Ergen
    • , Amanda M. Day
    •  & Amy Malhowski

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Laboratory of Genome Integrity, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA

    • Margarida A. Santos
    • , Robert B. Faryabi
    • , Aysegul V. Ergen
    • , Amanda M. Day
    • , Amy Malhowski
    • , Andres Canela
    • , Elsa Callen
    • , Hua-Tang Chen
    • , Nancy Wong
    • , Nadia Finkel
    •  & André Nussenzweig
  2. The Genetics Branch, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA

    • Masahiro Onozawa
    •  & Peter D. Aplan
  3. Laboratory of Endocrinology and Receptor Biology, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA

    • Ji-Eun Lee
    •  & Kai Ge
  4. Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA

    • Paula Gutierrez-Martinez
    •  & Derrick J. Rossi
  5. Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Paula Gutierrez-Martinez
    •  & Derrick J. Rossi
  6. Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program and Department of Pediatrics, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York 10065, USA

    • Aniruddha Deshpande
    •  & Scott A. Armstrong
  7. Experimental Immunology Branch, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA

    • Susan Sharrow
  8. Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research, Departments of Cell Biology and Medicine, Albert Einstein Cancer Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York 10461, USA

    • Keisuke Ito


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M.A.S., R.B.F., P.D.A., S.A.A. and A.N. participated in the study design. M.A.S., A.V.E., A.M.D., A.M., N.F., H.C. and N.W. performed mouse breeding, HSC analysis, transplantation and leukaemia experiments, and analysed data. R.B.F. performed computational experiments. E.C. led the genome stability experiments and analysed data. A.C. generated and performed experiments with AsiSI-ER-Tet-on and MLL4 shRNA and qPCR. P.G.-M. and D.J.R. supervised HSC experiments and performed serial colony assays; S.S. supervised flow cytometry. J.-E.L. and K.G. generated targeting vector and MLL4-deficient mice. K.I. performed the in vitro immunophenotypic division assay. M.O. quantified colony morphology in cytospins. A.D. generated and tested MLL–AF9 vectors. M.A.S. and A.N. wrote the manuscript and all authors reviewed it. A.N. supervised the project.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to André Nussenzweig.

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