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Leukemia. 2007 Sep;21(9):1915-20. Epub 2007 Jul 5.

Induction of acute lymphocytic leukemia differentiation by maintenance therapy.

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The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and Department of Oncology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA.


Despite extensive study in many malignancies, maintenance therapy has clinically benefited only two diseases: acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). ALL maintenance therapy utilizes low-dose 6-mercaptopurine (6MP) and methotrexate (MTX), while maintenance in APL primarily consists of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA). 6MP and MTX as used in ALL are also now usually added to maintenance ATRA for APL, based on data suggesting an improved disease-free survival. Although the mechanism of action of MTX and 6MP as maintenance is unknown, low-dose cytotoxic agents are potent inducers of differentiation in vitro. Thus, we studied whether maintenance therapy in ALL, like ATRA in APL, may be inducing terminal differentiation of ALL progenitors. The APL cell line NB4, the ALL cell lines REH and RS4;11, and patients' ALL blasts were incubated with ATRA, 6MP, and MTX in vitro. All three drugs inhibited the clonogenic growth of the APL and ALL cell lines without inducing immediate apoptosis, but associated with induction of phenotypic differentiation. The three drugs similarly upregulated lymphoid antigen expression, while decreasing CD34 expression, on patients' ALL blasts. These data suggest that induction of leukemia progenitor differentiation plays an important role in the mechanism of action of maintenance therapy in ALL.

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