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Decreased autophagy contributes to malignancies, however it is unclear how autophagy impacts on tumour growth. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an ideal model to address this as (i) patient samples are easily accessible, (ii) the hematopoietic stem and progenitor population (HSPC) where transformation occurs is well characterized, and (iii) loss of the key autophagy gene Atg7 in hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) leads to a lethal pre-leukemic phenotype in mice. Here we demonstrate that loss of Atg5 results in an identical HSPC phenotype as loss of Atg7, confirming a general role for autophagy in HSPC regulation. Compared to more committed/mature hematopoietic cells, healthy human and mouse HSCs displayed enhanced basal autophagic flux, limiting mitochondrial damage and reactive oxygen species in this long-lived population. Taken together, with our previous findings these data are compatible with autophagy limiting leukemic transformation. In line with this, autophagy gene losses are found within chromosomal regions that are commonly deleted in human AML. Moreover, human AML blasts showed reduced expression of autophagy genes, and displayed decreased autophagic flux with accumulation of unhealthy mitochondria indicating that deficient autophagy may be beneficial to human AML. Crucially, heterozygous loss of autophagy in an MLL-ENL model of AML led to increased proliferation in vitro, a glycolytic shift, and more aggressive leukemias in vivo. With autophagy gene losses also identified in multiple other malignancies, these findings point to low autophagy providing a general advantage for tumour growth.

Original publication




Journal article


Cell Death Discov

Publication Date





Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Autophagy, Cancer, Glycolysis, Hematopoiesis, Hematopoietic Stem Cell, Metabolism, Myeloid cells