Background: Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is the most aggressive subtype of lung cancer, accounting for about 15% of all lung cancer cases and approximately 200,000 deaths per year. SCLC genetic alterations are characterized by near-universal loss of function of the tumor suppressor genes TP53 and RB1. Several in-frame gene fusions have been identified in SCLC tumors and cell lines, with recurrent fusion events noted in up to 5% of cases. However, the biological and therapeutic implications of these fusions, including the recurrent in-frame RLF-MYCL1 gene fusion, are unknown. MYCL1 is frequently expressed in SCLC and differential expression of MYC family members has been associated with different SCLC subtypes. Here we investigate the functional significance of the RLF-MYCL1 gene fusion by developing a novel Rlf-Mycl1-driven genetically engineered mouse model (GEMM) of SCLC using CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering.

Methods: SgRNAs targeting intronic sequences of the Rlf and Mycl1 genes were cloned into a Cas9-expressing plasmid and co-transfected in NIH/3T3 cells. The presence of the Rlf-Mycl1 fusion was confirmed at the DNA and protein level. To test whether the RLF-MYCL1 gene fusion is important for the oncogenic switch during early SCLC development, we transduced Rb1Δ/Δ;Trp53Δ/Δ;Rbl2+/Δ precancerous neuroendocrine cells (preSCs), which were isolated from an early stage in tumorigenesis, with a lentiviral vector encoding Cas9 and with the dual sgRNAs targeting Rlf and Mycl1 genes (P-RM).

Results: The P-RM transduced preSCs formed significantly more colonies in soft agar than those infected with non-targeting sgRNAs (P-NT) (p<0.02). To assess the effect of Rlf-Mycl1 gene fusion in vivo, we injected P-RM and P-NT cells into the flank of athymic nude mice (n=4/5). P-RM injected mice developed detectable tumors significantly earlier than P-NT injected mice (p<0.01). To induce the Rlf-Mycl1 rearrangement in vivo, we transduced a cohort (n=12) of adult GEMM Rb1fl/fl;Trp53fl/fl;Rbl2fl/fl;Rosa26LSL-Cas9-GFP mice by intratracheal administration of a lentiviral vector encoding sgRNAs targeting Rlf and Mycl1. Mice transduced with the Rlf-Mycl1 lentiviral vector had a significantly higher tumor burden than controls by quantitative monitoring with MRI of pulmonary tumors over 6 months. These GEMMs are currently being monitored for survival assessment.

Summary: A major hurdle to SCLC clinical advancement is the absence of targetable driver mutations. Our findings indicate that the Rlf-Mycl1 gene fusion accelerates SCLC tumor growth. Defining mechanisms by which Rlf-Mycl1 accelerates tumorigenesis may identify therapeutic strategies to target SCLC harboring this fusion oncogene. Our study further supports a careful analysis of the involvement of other gene-fusions in SCLC.

Citation Format: Metamia Ciampricotti, Triantafyllia Karakousi, Alvaro Quintanal Villalonga, Viola Allaj, Andrea Ventura, Triparna Sen, JT Poirier, Thales Papagiannakopoulos, Charles M. Rudin. Rlf-Mycl1 gene fusion as a novel oncogenic driver in a mouse model of small cell lung cancer [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research 2020; 2020 Apr 27-28 and Jun 22-24. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2020;80(16 Suppl):Abstract nr 420.