DALLAS – May 14, 2024 – By completely or even partially depleting a protein called midnolin in B cells, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers suppressed leukemia and lymphoma in a mouse model genetically prone to these cancers. Their findings, reported in the , could lead to new treatments for these diseases that avoid the serious side effects of current therapies.

“We used a purely genetic method to find a drug target, and that target turns out to be sensational in that B-cell leukemias and lymphomas are strongly dependent on it, while most tissues of the host are not,” said study leader , Director of the and Professor of and at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Beutler, who shared the for his discovery of an important family of pathogen sensors known as Toll-like receptors found on immune cells, has long used mutagenesis – introducing mutations into the genes of animal models through exposure to a chemical called N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea (ENU) – as a key tool for discovering the function of genes. Recently, the pioneered a method known as automated meiotic mapping (AMM) that traces unusual features in mutant mice to the causative mutations, thereby identifying genes needed to maintain the normal physiologic state.

Mutagenesis often causes genetic diseases to develop in animals, providing insight into the function of affected genes by studying the animals’ abnormalities. However, Dr. Beutler explained, mutations can also provide protection from disease. Examples include mutations that protect HIV-infected individuals, or those with inherited sickle cell disease, from developing symptoms. The mechanisms behind some protective mutations have inspired drugs to treat various health conditions.

Searching for protective mutations for immune disorders, the researchers screened mutant mice for those that had immune cells with unusual features. In multiple sets of animals with unusually low numbers of B cells – an important component of the adaptive immune system responsible for the production of antibodies – the researchers used AMM to trace this deficit to mutations in midnolin, a protein found primarily in B cells. Although animals with complete absence of midnolin die during development before birth, milder mutations, including some introduced using a genetic technique that allows deletion of the gene during adulthood, caused no apparent harm.

The researchers significantly reduced or completely eliminated midnolin in mice genetically predisposed to B-cell leukemias and lymphomas, cancers in which B cells divide out of control. Although mice with normal midnolin died from these diseases by 5 months of age, most of those with less or no midnolin never developed the malignancies.

Additional experiments revealed that midnolin’s role in B cells is to stimulate the activity of proteasomes, cellular organelles that dispose of proteins that are damaged or no longer useful. Some therapies currently used for B-cell leukemias and lymphomas work by inhibiting proteasome activity, much like ridding cells of midnolin does, explained Dr. Beutler. However, unlike these drugs, which have numerous and potentially serious side effects, eliminating or reducing midnolin in animal models appeared to have no ill effects. Future research will focus on developing midnolin-inhibiting drugs that could eventually serve as the basis for new B-cell cancer therapies.

Other UTSW researchers who contributed to this study include first author Xue Zhong, Ph.D., Instructor in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense and of Immunology; Nagesh Peddada, Ph.D., Instructor in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense and of Immunology; James J. Moresco, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense and of ; Jonathan J. Rios, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the and of and ; Eva Marie Y. Moresco, Ph.D., and Jin Huk Choi, Ph.D., both Assistant Professors in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense and Immunology; Jianhui Wang, M.S., Senior Research Scientist; and Yiao Jiang, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher.

Dr. Beutler, a Regental Professor, holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie, Sr. Drs. Beutler and Rios are members of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (AI125581 and CA258602).

About UT Southwestern Medical Center  

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty members have received six Nobel Prizes and include 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 21 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 3,100 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.