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Leukemia. 2009 Jan;23(1):25-42. doi: 10.1038/leu.2008.246. Epub 2008 Sep 18.

Targeting the leukemic stem cell: the Holy Grail of leukemia therapy.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, USA.


Since the discovery of leukemic stem cells (LSCs) over a decade ago, many of their critical biological properties have been elucidated, including their distinct replicative properties, cell surface phenotypes, their increased resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs and the involvement of growth-promoting chromosomal translocations. Of particular importance is their ability to transfer malignancy to non-obese diabetic-severe combined immunodeficient (NOD-SCID) mice. Furthermore, numerous studies demonstrate that acute myeloid leukemia arises from mutations at the level of stem cell, and chronic myeloid leukemia is also a stem cell disease. In this review, we will evaluate the main characteristics of LSCs elucidated in several well-documented leukemias. In addition, we will discuss points of therapeutic intervention. Promising therapeutic approaches include the targeting of key signal transduction pathways (for example, PI3K, Rac and Wnt) with small-molecule inhibitors and specific cell surface molecules (for example, CD33, CD44 and CD123), with effective cytotoxic antibodies. Also, statins, which are already widely therapeutically used for a variety of diseases, show potential in targeting LSCs. In addition, drugs that inhibit ATP-binding cassette transporter proteins are being extensively studied, as they are important in drug resistance-a frequent characteristic of LSCs. Although the specific targeting of LSCs is a relatively new field, it is a highly promising battleground that may reveal the Holy Grail of cancer therapy.

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