Distal enhancers play critical roles in sustaining oncogenic gene-expression programs. We identify aberrant enhancer-like activation of GGAA tandem repeats as a characteristic feature of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) with genetic defects of the ETV6 transcriptional repressor, including ETV6–RUNX1+ and ETV6-null B-ALL. We show that GGAA repeat enhancers are direct activators of previously identified ETV6–RUNX1+/− like B-ALL “signature” genes, including the likely leukemogenic driver EPOR. When restored to ETV6-deficient B-ALL cells, ETV6 directly binds to GGAA repeat enhancers, represses their acetylation, downregulates adjacent genes, and inhibits B-ALL growth. In ETV6-deficient B-ALL cells, we find that the ETS transcription factor ERG directly binds to GGAA microsatellite enhancers and is required for sustained activation of repeat enhancer-activated genes. Together, our findings reveal an epigenetic gatekeeper function of the ETV6 tumor suppressor gene and establish microsatellite enhancers as a key mechanism underlying the unique gene-expression program of ETV6–RUNX1+/− like B-ALL.
We find a unifying mechanism underlying a leukemia subtype-defining gene-expression signature that relies on repetitive elements with poor conservation between humans and rodents. The ability of ETV6 to antagonize promiscuous, nonphysiologic ERG activity may shed light on other roles of these key regulators in hematolymphoid development and human disease.