Acute promyelocytic leukemia and differentiation therapy: Molecular mechanisms of differentiation, retinoic acid resistance and novel treatments

Bülent Özpolat

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Incorporation of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) into the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a type of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), revolutionized the therapy of cancer in the last decade and introduced the concept of differentiation therapy. ATRA, a physiological metabolite of vitamin A (retinol), induces complete clinical remissions (CRs) in about 90% of patients with APL. In contrast to the cytotoxic chemotherapeutics, ATRA can selectively induce terminal differentiation of promyelocytic leukemic cells into normal granulocytes without causing bone marrow hypoplasia or exacerbation of the frequently occurring fatal hemorrhagic syndromes in patients with APL. However, remissions induced by ATRA alone are transient and the patients commonly become resistant to the therapy, leading to relapses in most patients and thus limiting the use of ATRA as a single agent. Therefore, ATRA is currently combined with anthracycline-based chemotherapy, and this regimen dramatically improves patient survival compared to chemotherapy alone, curing about 70% of the patients. However, 30% of APL patients still relapse and die in five years. Recently, arsenic trioxide (As2O3) was proven to be highly effective in inducing CRs not only in APL patients relapsed after ATRA treatment and conventional chemotherapy but also in primary APL patients. Despite the well-documented clinical efficacy of ATRA, molecular mechanisms responsible for development of ATRA resistance are not well understood. Based on in vitro and clinical observations, several mechanisms, including induction of accelerated metabolism of ATRA, decreased bioavailability and plasma drug levels, point mutations in the ATRA-binding domain of promyelocytic leukemia (PML)-retinoic acid receptor-alpha (RARα) and other molecular events have been proposed to explain ATRA resistance. In this review, the molecular mechanisms of ATRA-induced myeloid cell differentiation and resistance are discussed, together with novel clinical approaches to overcome ATRA resistance in APL.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-61
Number of pages15
JournalTurkish Journal of Hematology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2009


  • Acute promyelocytic leukemia
  • All-trans-retinoic acid
  • Arsenic
  • Histone deacetylase
  • Metabolism
  • Resistance
  • Therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology


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