Recent Advances in the Biology and Treatment of Acute Promyelocytic

By James L. Slack, MD, Session Speaker

Address reprint requests to James L. Slack, MD, Division of Hematology
Oncology/Bone Marrow Transplantation, Rosioell Park Cancer Institute,
Elm. & Carlton Streets, Buffalo, NY 14263; Email

 1998 by American Society of Clinical Oncology.


Abstract: Although acute promyelocytic leukemla	controversies In both
the molecular pathogenesis and

{APL; French-American-British [FAB] stage M3) I* prop-	management of
this areas*. Treated ppropriafly,

riy clasBifiad  a ubtyp* of acuf myftloid 1uk*inia	APL i now
curable in the vt majority of patlanf;

(AMD. it represents a unique, and uniquely treatable,	thus, e basic
understanding of the principles of if

clinical and molecular disease entity. This review will	diagnosis and
treatment Is mandatory to the practlc-

summarize recent advances In the biology and treat-	ing oncologlst.
merit of APL, and will examine specific issues and

ACUTE PROMYELOCYTIC LEUKEMIA(APL) has an approximately flat incidence
throughout life, with a median age at presentation of approximately
40.1-3 In Caucasians, APL represents about 6% to 10% of all cases of
acute myeloid leukemia (AML), while in Latinos,4 and perhaps Asians,5
the relative incidence of APL (as a percentage of all AML) may be as
high as 20% to 30%. Epidemiologic studies have demonstrated an
association between APL and high body-mass index,8 as well as with
certain occupations and environmental exposures.6 Although the vast
majority of APL cases arise de novo, cases of secondary APL have been
reported7; it is unclear what percentage of such cases is truly
therapy-related (u, eg, second primary cancers), but a striking
association has been observed between bimolane (a piperazinedi-one
compound used in the treatment of psoriasis in China) and secondary APL
in that country.8 Unlike other subtypes of AML, APL in the elderly is
highly curable. Thus, in the absence of a clinical contraindication, all
patients diagnosed with APL, regardless of age, should be offered
standard therapy with all-traras retinoic add (ATRA) and chemotherapy
(described later).


The morphologic diagnosis of APL is generally, although not always,
straightforward, Cytoge-netic or molecular documentation of the
pathogno-monic 15; 17 translocation should be sought and will be
confirmatory in most cases, but institutionof therapy (ATRA or ATRA +
chemotherapy) should not be delayed pending cytogenetics or molecular
data in cases with diagnostic morphology. This is especially true if the
patient has significant disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) or
is actively bleeding. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), where
available, is sometimes more rapid than cytogenetics and can also
document the 15; 17 translocation. Although the surface antigen profile
ofAPL cells is often distinct,9 flow cytometry alone should not be
relied upon to make a diagnosis ofAPL. The reverse-transcription
polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay for detection of the PML-RARa
fusion transcript will confirm the diagnosis of APL but, unless
performed on-site, requires a turnaround of at least 3 to 4 days. In
extremely problematic cases [ie, cases thought to be APL, but without
the t(15;17) or other APL-spedfic translocation], RT-PCR is generally
considered the gold standard, since there should, at least in theory, be
essentially no false-negative tests. In practice, a negative RT-PCR
assay for PML-RARa effectively excludes the diagnosis of APL and
mandates a chemotherapeutic induction approach. However, it should be
kept in mind that APL can be caused by translocations other than the
classic t(15;17). Although quite rare (Table 1), some of these cases may
benefit from ATRA, and referral to (or advice from) a specialized
diagnostic center should be sought. Finally, patients initially
diagnosed as non-APL AML, but subsequently found to be
PML-RARct-positive or to have the t(15;17) should probably be started on
ATRA as soon as possible, even if chemotherapy has already begun. If
such patients are already in remission, they should complete standard
consolidation and then receive ATRA as maintenance based on recently
published data (described later). THE MOLECULAR PATHOGENESIS OF APL

The defining molecular event in APL is disruption of the retinoic acid
receptor alpha (RARa) gene at 17q21, and its fusion with one of four
partner genes (Table 1). In 99.9% of cases, the RARa fusion partner is
the PML (for ProMyelo-cytic Lenkemia) gene, located at 15q22. The
PML-RAKtt fusion gene (Fig 1) is the molecular counterpart of the
classic t(15;17), originally described by Rowley et al10 in 1977. The
structure/ftmction of PML and RARa, and the role of PML-RARa in APL
pathogenesia, have been reviewed recently.11"16 Several of the most
notable, and clinically relevant, advances in our understanding of the
molecular pathogenesis of APL will be briefly presented here.

RARa Gene Disruption is Central to the Pathogenesis of APL

Three novel RARa fusion partners have recently been described in cases
of leukemia thatmorphologically resemble APL (Table 1); PLZF (for
promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger),16'17 NPM (nucleophosmin),18'19 and
NuMA (nuclear mitotic apparatus protein),20-21 These cases are extremely
rare: only one case of NuMA-RARa and three cases ofNPM-RARce are known
to exist (S. Kamel-Reid and R. Redner, personal communication, January
1998). PLZF-RARa is slightly more common, with approximately 12 cases
worldwide (J. Licht, personal communication, January 1998).
Structurally, PLZF, NPM, and NuMA (and PML) are quite different
proteins; however, all are predominantly nuclear in location and contain
N-terminal protein-protein interaction domains. As is true with PML-RARa
(Fig 1), ammo terminal sequences from either PLZF, NPM, or NuMA are
fused with the B through F domains of RARa to form the oncogenic fusion
protein. This fact argues persuasively that breakage of the RARa gene
between the A and B domains is necessary for thedevelopment of APL, and
that disruption of the retinoid signaling pathway is the key
pathoge-netic feature of APL. Clinically, APL patients (and cells) with
PLZF-RARa do not respond to ATRA,17 while the one published case each
ofNPM-RARa and NuMA-RARot APL appeared to be ATRA-responsive.19'20

Both PML-RARa and PLZF-RARa Can Cause an APL-Like Disease in Transgenic

PML-RARot can cause anAPL-like disease when expressed under the control
of myeloid-specific promoters in transgenic mice.22-25 However, it is
worth noting that only a fraction of mice develop leukemia, and then
only after a prolonged latency period. This result suggests either that
PML-RARn alone is insufficient to cause APL (ie, additional genetic
changes are necessary), or that the expression vectors used do not
target PML-RAR to the appropriate cell type in vivo. Additional genetic
changes that may contribute to the development of APL are unknown, but
possible candidates are the reciprocal fusion protein, RARa-PML, or the
truncated PML protein(s) that have been described in some APL
patients.26 Recently, transgenic mice have been generated that express
both PML-RARa and RARa-PML, and preliminary results suggest that such
mice have an increased penetrance of the APL phenotype.27 PLZF-RARci has
also been shown to cause my-eloid leukemia in transgenic mice.28 The
leukemia that develops in PLZF-RARa transgenic mice is relatively
resistant to ATRA, while that which develops in PML-RARot mice is
ATRA-respon-sive,29 a finding which reproduces in large measure the
human phenotype. These studies conclusively demonstrate the potential of
PML-RARa and PLZF-RARa to disrupt hematopoiesis in vivo, and offer
strong support for the premise that both can create conditions conducive
to the development of APL in humans.

PML-RARa Is Degraded by ATRA, but Is Also an ATRA-Dependent
Transcriptional Enhancer

The biologic fact of APL suggests that a signal mediated through RARa or
one of its heterodi-meric partners is required for normal myeloid
maturation. Thus, while normal promyelocytes may undergo differentiation
in response to physiologic levels of retinoids, far higher retinoic add
concentrations are necessary to overcome thedifferentiation block
imposed by PML-RARa. A number of different hypotheses could account for
this observation, but two recent reports have suggested a rather simple
and elegant explanation: that PML-RARa, but not endogenous RARa, is
degraded in response to ATRA.30'31 This result offers a unifying, if not
yet validated, hypothesis to explain the sensitivity of leukemic
promyelo-cytes to ATRA, ie, ATRA-induced loss of PML-RARa restores a
normal balance of endogenous retinoid receptors (RAR/RXR heterodimers).
Para-doxically, PLZF-RARci, the fusion protein associated with
ATRA-resistant t