p53 loss promotes acute myeloid leukemia by enabling aberrant self-renewal.
The p53 tumor suppressor limits proliferation in response to cellular stress through several mechanisms. Here, we test whether the recently described ability of p53 to limit stem cell self-renewal suppresses tumorigenesis in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an aggressive cancer in which p53 mutations are associated with drug resistance and adverse outcome. Our approach combined mosaic mouse models, Cre-lox technology, and in vivo RNAi to disable p53 and simultaneously activate endogenous Kras(G12D)-a common AML lesion that promotes proliferation but not self-renewal. We show that p53 inactivation strongly cooperates with oncogenic Kras(G12D) to induce aggressive AML, while both lesions on their own induce T-cell malignancies with long latency. This synergy is based on a pivotal role of p53 in limiting aberrant self-renewal of myeloid progenitor cells, such that loss of p53 counters the deleterious effects of oncogenic Kras on these cells and enables them to self-renew indefinitely. Consequently, myeloid progenitor cells expressing oncogenic Kras and lacking p53 become leukemia-initiating cells, resembling cancer stem cells capable of maintaining AML in vivo. Our results establish an efficient new strategy for interrogating oncogene cooperation, and provide strong evidence that the ability of p53 to limit aberrant self-renewal contributes to its tumor suppressor activity.