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The molecular basis of leukemia.

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  • 1Brigham and Women's Hospital, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


Major strides have been made in our understanding of the molecular basis of adult and pediatric leukemias. More than one hundred disease alleles have been identified and characterized in cell culture and murine models of leukemia. In some instances, molecularly targeted therapies have been developed based on these insights that are currently in clinical trials, such as small molecule inhibitors of FLT3. In addition, it has recently been appreciated that, as with normal hematopoiesis, there is a hierarchical organization among leukemic cells that includes a rare population of leukemic stem cells that have properties of self-renewal. Understanding the characteristics of these leukemic stem cells may provide new insights into leukemia therapies that target self-renewal pathways. In Section I, Dr. Craig Jordan reviews the data that supports the existence of a "leukemia stem cell." He provides an overview of the functional properties of leukemic stem cells, their relationship to hematopoietic stem cells, and the relevance of leukemic stem cells in other human malignancies including solid tumors. He briefly discusses what is known of the pathways that regulate properties of self-renewal. Dr. Gary Gilliland provides an overview of the genetics of adult leukemias in Section II and ongoing genome-wide strategies for discovery of new disease alleles. He describes the clinical and therapeutic implications of these findings and provides examples of bench-to-bedside translation of molecularly targeted therapies for AML, including the use of FLT3 inhibitors. In Section III, Dr. Carolyn Felix reviews recent advances in our understanding of the genetics and therapy of pediatric leukemias. She provides an overview of leukemias that are common in pediatric malignancies but rarely observed in adults, including the TEL-AML1 (ETV6-RUNX1) fusion associated with pediatric B-cell ALL, the OTT-MAL fusion associated with infant megakaryoblastic leukemia, PTPN11 mutations in juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, and MLL fusion genes in leukemogenesis, among others.

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