Osteosarcoma is the most common malignancy of the bone, yet the survival for patients with osteosarcoma is virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. This is principally because development of new therapies is hampered by a lack of recurrent mutations that can be targeted in osteosarcoma. Here, we report that epigenetic changes via mRNA methylation holds great promise to better understand the mechanisms of osteosarcoma growth and to develop targeted therapeutics. In patients with osteosarcoma, the RNA demethylase ALKBH5 was amplified and higher expression correlated with copy-number changes. ALKBH5 was critical for promoting osteosarcoma growth and metastasis, yet it was dispensable for normal cell survival. Methyl RNA immunoprecipitation sequencing analysis and functional studies showed that ALKBH5 mediates its protumorigenic function by regulating m6A levels of histone deubiquitinase USP22 and the ubiquitin ligase RNF40. ALKBH5-mediated m6A deficiency in osteosarcoma led to increased expression of USP22 and RNF40 that resulted in inhibition of histone H2A monoubiquitination and induction of key protumorigenic genes, consequently driving unchecked cell-cycle progression, incessant replication, and DNA repair. RNF40, which is historically known to ubiquitinate H2B, inhibited H2A ubiquitination in cancer by interacting with and affecting the stability of DDB1-CUL4–based ubiquitin E3 ligase complex. Taken together, this study directly links increased activity of ALKBH5 with dysregulation of USP22/RNF40 and histone ubiquitination in cancers. More broadly, these results suggest that m6A RNA methylation works in concert with other epigenetic mechanisms to control cancer growth.

Significance:

RNA demethylase ALKBH5 upregulates USP22 and RNF40 to inhibit histone H2A ubiquitination and induces expression of key replication and DNA repair–associated genes, driving osteosarcoma progression.

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