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Leuk Lymphoma. 1994 Apr;13(3-4):187-201.

Glucocorticoid resistance in childhood leukemia.

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  • 1Department of Pediatrics, Free University Hospital, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Glucocorticoids (GC) are being used in the treatment of childhood leukemia for several decades, most successfully in newly diagnosed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). However, GC resistance is seen in 10-30% of untreated ALL patients, and is much more frequent in relapsed ALL and in acute nonlymphoblastic leukemia (ANLL). Sensitivity or resistance to GC can be measured using a cell culture drug resistance assay. For this purpose, we use the colorimetric methyl-thiazol-tetrazolium (MTT) assay. We have shown that GC resistance in childhood leukemia is related to clinical and cell biological features, and to the clinical outcome after multi-drug chemotherapy. These results are summarized in this review. In addition, we describe the apoptotic 'cell-lysis pathway' by which GC exert their antileukemic activity. This description provides a model to discuss the mechanisms of GC resistance, and to summarize the relevant literature. Possible levels of resistance relate to the diffusion of GC through the cell membrane, binding to the GC receptor (GCR), activation of the GC-GCR complex, translocation of the complex into the nucleus, binding to DNA, endonuclease-mediated DNA fragmentation, and DNA repair. A low number of GCR has been shown to be the cause of resistance in some children with ALL. However, GC resistance is likely to be caused at the post-receptor level in most leukemias. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge relating to the clinical relevance of mechanisms of GC resistance at the post-receptor level. Studies on the mechanisms of GC resistance other than those directly related to the GCR should be initiated, especially if patient material is used, as the results might indicate ways to circumvent or modulate GC resistance. A further increase in our knowledge regarding the relation between GC resistance and patient and cell biological features, the clinical relevance of GC resistance, and the mechanisms of GC resistance in leukemia patients, may contribute to further improvement in the results of GC therapy in leukemia.

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