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Biochim Biophys Acta. 2015 Jan;1853(1):14-26. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamcr.2014.09.023. Epub 2014 Oct 2.

Autophagy in acute leukemias: a double-edged sword with important therapeutic implications.

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Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy.
Institute of Molecular Genetics, National Research Council, Rizzoli Orthopedic Institute, Bologna, Italy.
Department of Morphology, Surgery and Experimental Medicine, University of Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy.
Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA.
Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy. Electronic address:


Macroautophagy, usually referred to as autophagy, is a degradative pathway wherein cytoplasmatic components such as aggregated/misfolded proteins and organelles are engulfed within double-membrane vesicles (autophagosomes) and then delivered to lysosomes for degradation. Autophagy plays an important role in the regulation of numerous physiological functions, including hematopoiesis, through elimination of aggregated/misfolded proteins, and damaged/superfluous organelles. The catabolic products of autophagy (amino acids, fatty acids, nucleotides) are released into the cytosol from autophagolysosomes and recycled into bio-energetic pathways. Therefore, autophagy allows cells to survive starvation and other unfavorable conditions, including hypoxia, heat shock, and microbial pathogens. Nevertheless, depending upon the cell context and functional status, autophagy can also serve as a death mechanism. The cohort of proteins that constitute the autophagy machinery function in a complex, multistep biochemical pathway which has been partially identified over the past decade. Dysregulation of autophagy may contribute to the development of several disorders, including acute leukemias. In this kind of hematologic malignancies, autophagy can either act as a chemo-resistance mechanism or have tumor suppressive functions, depending on the context. Therefore, strategies exploiting autophagy, either for activating or inhibiting it, could find a broad application for innovative treatment of acute leukemias and could significantly contribute to improved clinical outcomes. These aspects are discussed here after a brief introduction to the autophagic molecular machinery and its roles in hematopoiesis.


Acute leukemia; Autophagy; Cell death; Cell survival; Hematopoietic stem cell; Targeted therapy

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