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Chromatin remodeling protein HELLS is critical for retinoblastoma tumor initiation and progression.


Retinoblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer of the developing retina that initiates by biallelic RB1 gene inactivation. Tumor progression in retinoblastoma is driven by epigenetics, as retinoblastoma genomes are stable, but the mechanism(s) that drive these epigenetic changes remain unknown. Lymphoid-specific helicase (HELLS) protein is an epigenetic modifier directly regulated by the RB/E2F pathway. In this study, we used novel genetically engineered mouse models to investigate the role of HELLS during retinal development and tumorigenesis. Our results indicate that Hells-null retinal progenitor cells divide, undergo cell-fate specification, and give rise to fully laminated retinae with minor bipolar cells defects, but normal retinal function. Despite the apparent nonessential role of HELLS in retinal development, failure to transcriptionally repress Hells during retinal terminal differentiation due to retinoblastoma (RB) family loss significantly contributes to retinal tumorigenesis. Loss of HELLS drastically reduced ectopic division of differentiating cells in Rb1/p107-null retinae, significantly decreased the incidence of retinoblastoma, delayed tumor progression, and increased overall survival. Despite its role in heterochromatin formation, we found no evidence that Hells loss directly affected chromatin accessibility in the retina but functioned as transcriptional co-activator of E2F3, decreasing expression of cell cycle genes. We propose that HELLS is a critical downstream mediator of E2F-dependent ectopic proliferation in RB-null retinae. Together with the nontoxic effect of HELLS loss in the developing retina, our results suggest that HELLS and its downstream pathways could serve as potential therapeutic targets for retinoblastoma.

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