Acute promyelocytic leukemia

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Acute promyelocytic leukemia
Classification and external resources
Neutrophilic promyelocyte.png
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Acute promyelocytic leukemia
Classification and external resources
Neutrophilic promyelocyte.png

Acute promyelocytic leukemia is a subtype of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It is also known as acute progranulocytic leukemia; APL; AML with t(15;17)(q24;q21), PML-RARA and variants; FAB subtype M3[1] and M3 variant.

In APL, there is an abnormal accumulation of immature granulocytes called promyelocytes. The disease is characterized by a chromosomal translocation involving the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARα or RARA) gene and is unique from other forms of AML in its responsiveness to all trans retinoic acid (ATRA) therapy.

Acute promyelocytic leukemia was first characterized in 1957.[2][3] Standard all-trans retinoic acid-chemotherapy treatments have a 5-year event-free survival of >70%.[4]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Normal differentiation of the white blood cells in the marrow starts with the multi-potent hematopoietic stem cells (HSC). Several transcription factors such as PU.1 and CCAAT/enhancer binding protein, alpha (CEBPA) have been identified to be important in the white blood cell differentiation process.[5] The HSC generates the lymphoid (B cells and T cells of our immune system) cell line and the myeloid cell lines. The myeloid cell lines have granules in their cytoplasm and are called granulocytes which are important in fighting infections.[6]

The accumulation of promyelocytes in the bone marrow results in a reduction in the production of normal red blood cells and platelets, resulting in anemia and thrombocytopenia. The bone marrow is unable to produce healthy red blood cells. Either leukopenia (low white cell count) or leukocytosis (high white cell count) may be observed in the peripheral blood.

Symptoms include:

In addition, in 85% of cases acute promyelocytic leukemia is associated with bleeding caused by disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).[7] It is characterized by rapid increase in the number of immature white blood cells, resulting in rapid progression of malignant cell counts and crowding of the bone marrow. This results in very low red blood cells (anemia) and platelet counts, which can cause serious bleeding.


Acute promyelocytic leukemia represents 5-8% of AML in adults. The median age is approximately 40 years, which is considerably younger than the other subtypes of AML (70 years). Without proper medicine and treatment, APL is fatal. Incidence is higher among patients of Latin American origin.[8]

APL has a high rate of relapse with conventional chemotherapy[clarification needed].[9]


Faggot cell

Acute promyelocytic leukemia is characterized by a chromosomal translocation involving the retinoic acid receptor-alpha gene on chromosome 17 (RARA). In 95% of cases of APL, retinoic acid receptor-alpha (RARA) gene on chromosome 17 is involved in a reciprocal translocation with the promyelocytic leukemia gene (PML) on chromosome 15, a translocation denoted as t(15;17)(q22;q21). The RAR receptor is dependent on retinoic acid for regulation of transcription.[10]

Eight other rare gene rearrangements have been described in APL fusing RARA to promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger (PLZF also known as ZBTB16),[11] nucleophosmin (NPM1), nuclear matrix associated (NUMA1), signal transducer and activator of transcription 5b (STAT5B), protein kinase A regulatory subunit 1α (PRKAR1A), factor interacting with PAPOLA and CPSF1 (FIP1L1), BCL6 corepressor (BCOR) or oligonucleotide/oligosaccharide-binding fold containing 2A (OBFC2A also known as NABP1) genes. Some of these rearrangements are ATRA-sensitive or have unknown sensitivity to ATRA because they are so rare; STAT5B/RARA and PLZF/RARA are known to be resistant to ATRA.

The fusion of PML and RARA results in expression of a hybrid protein with altered functions. This fusion protein binds with enhanced affinity to sites on the cell's DNA, blocking transcription and differentiation of granulocytes. It does so by enhancing interaction of nuclear co-repressor (NCOR) molecule and histone deacetylase (HDAC).[12] Although the chromosomal translocation involving RARA is believed to be the initiating event, additional mutations are required for the development of leukemia.

One of the most distinguishable traits in APL is the presence of overt coagulopathy (disseminated intravascular coagulation) at diagnosis. The bleeding diathesis is due to the enhanced fibrinolytic activity due to annexin II overexpression and expression of tissue factor by abnormal promyelocytes.

The hypergranular form of APL features faggot cells. This term is applied to these blast cells because of the presence of numerous Auer rods in the cytoplasm. The accumulation of these Auer rods gives the appearance of a bundle of sticks, from which the cells derive their name.


Acute promyelocytic leukemia can be distinguished from other types of AML based on morphologic examination of a bone marrow aspirate or biopsy as well as finding the characteristic rearrangement. Definitive diagnosis requires testing for the PML/RARA fusion gene. This may be done by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), or conventional cytogenetics of peripheral blood or bone marrow. This mutation involves a translocation of the long arm chromosomes of 15 and 17. On rare occasions, a cryptic translocation may occur which cannot be detected by cytogenetic testing; on these occasions PCR testing is essential to confirm the diagnosis.

RARα is a member of the nuclear family of receptors; its ligand, retinoic acid is a form of Vitamin A and acts as a regulator of DNA transcription at multiple sites.[13]

Monitoring for relapse using PCR tests for PML/RARα transcript allows early re-treatment which is successful in many instances.


Initial treatment[edit]

APL is unique among myeloid leukemias due to its sensitivity to all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), a derivative of vitamin A. Treatment with ATRA dissociates the NCOR-HDACL complex from RAR and allows DNA transcription and differentiation of the immature leukemic promyelocytes into mature granulocytes by targeting the oncogenic transcription factor and its aberrant action. Unlike other chemotherapies, ATRA does not directly kill the malignant cells. ATRA induces the terminal differentiation of the leukemic promyelocytes, after which these differentiated malignant cells undergo spontaneous apoptosis on their own. ATRA is typically combined with anthracycline based chemotherapy resulting in a clinical remission in approximately 90% of patients.{Adès L, Guerci A, Raffoux E, et al. Very long-term outcome of acute promyelocytic leukemia after treatment with alltrans retinoic acid and chemotherapy: the European APL Group experience. Blood 2010;115:1690-6.} ATRA alone is capable of inducing remission but it is short-lived in the absence of anthracycline. After stable remission is induced, the standard of care is to undergo 2 years of consolidation chemotherapy with Methotrexate, Mercaptopurine, and ATRA. Nearly all patients will relapse without consolidation therapy.

ATRA therapy is associated with the unique side effect of retinoic acid syndrome.[14] This is associated with the development of dyspnea, fever, weight gain, peripheral edema and is treated with dexamethasone. The etiology of retinoic acid syndrome has been attributed to capillary leak syndrome from cytokine release from the differentiating promyelocytes.Treatment APL is not same other subtype AML.

Since 1992 Differentiation therapy of APL has undergone further refinements and results from 2007 show that up-front use of ATRA/ATO (arsenic trioxide) plus induction chemotherapy leads to complete remission rates in excess of 93% with these patients achieving 5-year overall survival rates approaching 100%.[15]

For relapsed or refractory disease[edit]

Allogeneic bone marrow or stem cell transplantation are the preferred treatment options for relapsed or refractory disease. Arsenic trioxide (As2O3) is currently being evaluated for treatment of relapsed / refractory disease. Remission with arsenic trioxide has been reported.[16] Studies have shown arsenic reorganizes nuclear bodies and degrades the mutant PML-RAR fusion protein.[17] Arsenic also increases caspase activity which then induces apoptosis.[18] It does reduce the relapse rate for high risk patients.[19]


  1. ^ "Acute Myeloid Leukemia - Signs and Symptoms". 
  2. ^ Tallman MS, Altman JK (2008). "Curative strategies in acute promyelocytic leukemia". Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program 2008: 391–9. doi:10.1182/asheducation-2008.1.391. PMID 19074116. 
  3. ^ Hillestad, LK (November 1957). "Acute promyelocytic leukemia". Acta Med Scand. 159 (3): 189–94. doi:10.1111/j.0954-6820.1957.tb00124.x. PMID 13508085. 
  4. ^ [Targeting agents alone to cure acute promyelocytic leukemia,] N Engl J Emd 369:186-7, July 11, 2013
  5. ^ Pecorino, 2008, 174
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Diagnosing Disseminated Intravascular Coagulopathy in Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia". Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2008. 
  8. ^ Douer D, Santillana S, Ramezani L, et al. (August 2003). "Acute promyelocytic leukaemia in patients originating in Latin America and is associated with an increased frequency of the bcr1 subtype of the PML/RARalpha fusion gene". Br. J. Haematol. 122 (4): 563–70. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2141.2003.04480.x. PMID 12899711. 
  9. ^ Rambaldi, Leukemia The Curtis Center, Philadelphia, PA, 2002, p.531
  10. ^ Pecorino, L. 2008, Molecular Biology of Cancer: Mechanisms, Targets and Therapeutics. p.53.
  11. ^ Chen Z, Brand NJ, et al. (March 1993). "Fusion between a novel Krüppel-like zinc finger gene and the retinoic acid receptor-alpha locus due to a variant t(11;17) translocation associated with acute promyelocytic leukaemia". EMBO J 12 (3): 1161–7. PMC 413318. PMID 8384553. 
  12. ^ Rambali,531
  13. ^ Pecorino, p.53
  14. ^ Breccia M, Latagliata R, Carmosino I, et al. (December 2008). "Clinical and biological features of acute promyelocytic leukemia patients developing retinoic acid syndrome during induction treatment with all-trans retinoic acid and idarubicin". Haematologica 93 (12): 1918–20. doi:10.3324/haematol.13510. PMID 18945746. 
  15. ^ Differentiation therapy of acute myeloid leukemia: past, present and future. March 2009. 
  16. ^ Soignet SL, Maslak P, Wang ZG, et al. (November 1998). "Complete remission after treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia with arsenic trioxide". N. Engl. J. Med. 339 (19): 1341–8. doi:10.1056/NEJM199811053391901. PMID 9801394. 
  17. ^ Soignet,Complete Remission After Treatment of APL with Arsenic Trioxide 1998, 1346
  18. ^ Soignet, 1998, 1347
  19. ^ Arsenic Compound Improves Survival in Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia Patients . Sept 2007

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