Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a heterogeneous hematologic malignancy that originates from leukemia-initiating cells (LICs). The identification of common mechanisms underlying LIC development will be important in establishing broadly effective therapeutics for AML. Constitutive NF-κB pathway activation has been reported in different types of AML; however, the mechanism of NF-κB activation and its importance in leukemia progression are poorly understood. Here, we analyzed myeloid leukemia mouse models to assess NF-κB activity in AML LICs. We found that LICs, but not normal hematopoietic stem cells or non-LIC fractions within leukemia cells, exhibited constitutive NF-κB activity. This activity was maintained through autocrine TNF-α secretion, which formed an NF-κB/TNF-α positive feedback loop. LICs had increased levels of active proteasome machinery, which promoted the degradation of IκBα and further supported NF-κB activity. Pharmacological inhibition of the proteasome complex markedly suppressed leukemia progression in vivo. Conversely, enhanced activation of NF-κB signaling expanded LIC frequency within leukemia cell populations. We also demonstrated a strong correlation between NF-κB activity and TNF-α secretion in human AML samples. Our findings indicate that NF-κB/TNF-α signaling in LICs contributes to leukemia progression and provide a widely applicable approach for targeting LICs.
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