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Cancer Sci. 2013 Sep;104(9):1146-53. doi: 10.1111/cas.12216. Epub 2013 Jul 9.

Sustained upregulation of effector natural killer cells in chronic myeloid leukemia after discontinuation of imatinib.

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Department of Immunoregulation, Institute of Medical Science, Tokyo, Japan.


A number of CML patients who achieve a sustained complete molecular response (CMR) for at least 2 years during imatinib (IM) therapy can discontinue IM without relapse. With the long-term goal of developing immunological criteria for managing IM therapy in CML patients, we compared the immunophenotypic profiles of three groups of CML patients: those who received IM and had a CMR for more than two consecutive years (CMR group); patients who received IM and did not have a sustained CMR but maintained a major molecular response for more than 2 years (fluctuating CMR group); and patients with a sustained CMR for more than 6 months after IM discontinuation (STOP-IM group), together with healthy controls. The percentages of effector populations of natural killer (NK) cells, such as interferon (IFN)-γ(+) CD3(-) CD56(+) cells, were significantly higher in the STOP-IM and CMR groups than in the fluctuating CMR and control groups. The elevated levels of these effector NK cells were sustained for more than 3 years after IM discontinuation. In contrast, the percentages of effector memory CD8(+) T cells, such as IFN-γ(+) CCR7(-) CD45RO(+) CD8(+) cells, were significantly higher in the STOP-IM and control groups than in the CMR and fluctuating CMR groups, possibly owing to IM intake. These results suggest that the immunological activation status of NK cells contributes to CMR maintenance. Higher activation levels of effector NK cells in CML patients being treated with IM might reflect minimization of BCR-ABL1 transcript levels and therefore could be additive information for determining whether to stop IM.

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