History and clinical findings: A 60-year-old woman presented with night-sweats and increasing weakness. Physical examination revealed no abnormalities. For 27 years she had been treated for Philadelphia-positive chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Because of progressive disease treatment with the tyrosine kinase inhibitor imatinib (STI571, Glivec (R)) had been started 9 months before. She had achieved complete hematological remission within 8 weeks, but not a cytogenetic response.
Investigations: Elevated WBC count (26.7/nl) with a differential displaying typical features of acceleration in bone marrow aspirate confirmed CML in accelerated phase. Sequencing of the ATP binding site of the BCR-ABL gene, which - at protein level - is the target for imatinib, revealed the clonal selection of cells harboring a point mutation leading to the exchange of amino acid 253 from tyrosine to histidine. This was considered to be the cause of resistance to imatinib.
Treatment and course: Dose increase of imatinib up to 600 mg daily and administration of cytarabine did not overcome resistance. Imatinib therapy was discontinued; hematologic remission was induced by oral therapy with hydroxyurea and mercaptopurine. In the course of the following 6 months a gradual decrease of the resistant clone from 100 % down to lower than the detection limit of the method was demonstrated.
Conclusions: Clonal mutations are often the cause of resistance to imatinib therapy. They can be detected by sequencing of the ATP binding site of BCR-ABL in specialized laboratories. This case shows that discontinuation of imatinib therapy can significantly reduce the mutated (resistant) clone and thereby restore sensitivity to imatinib.