Chronic myelogenous leukemia as a paradigm of early cancer and possible curative strategies

Leukemia. 2003 Jul;17(7):1211-62. doi: 10.1038/sj.leu.2402912.


The chronological history of the important discoveries leading to our present understanding of the essential clinical, biological, biochemical, and molecular features of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) are first reviewed, focusing in particular on abnormalities that are responsible for the massive myeloid expansion. CML is an excellent target for the development of selective treatment because of its highly consistent genetic abnormality and qualitatively different fusion gene product, p210(bcr-abl). It is likely that the multiple signaling pathways dysregulated by p210(bcr-abl) are sufficient to explain all the initial manifestations of the chronic phase of the disease, although understanding of the circuitry is still very incomplete. Evidence is presented that the signaling pathways that are constitutively activated in CML stem cells and primitive progenitors cooperate with cytokines to increase the proportion of stem cells that are activated and thereby increase recruitment into the committed progenitor cell pool, and that this increased activation is probably the primary cause of the massive myeloid expansion in CML. The cooperative interactions between Bcr-Abl and cytokine-activated pathways interfere with the synergistic interactions between multiple cytokines that are normally required for the activation of stem cells, while at the same time causing numerous subtle biochemical and functional abnormalities in the later progenitors and precursor cells. The committed CML progenitors have discordant maturation and reduced proliferative capacity compared to normal committed progenitors, and like them, are destined to die after a limited number of divisions. Thus, the primary goal of any curative strategy must be to eliminate all Philadelphia positive (Ph+) primitive cells that are capable of symmetric division and thereby able to expand the Ph+ stem cell pool and recreate the disease. Several highly potent and moderately selective inhibitors of Bcr-Abl kinase have recently been discovered that are capable of killing the majority of actively proliferating early CML progenitors with minimal effects on normal progenitors. However, like their normal counterparts, most of the CML primitive stem cells are quiescent at any given time and are relatively invulnerable to the Bcr-Abl kinase inhibitors as well as other drugs. We propose that survival of dormant Ph+ stem cells may be the most important reason for the inability to cure the disease during initial treatment, while resistance to the inhibitors and other drugs becomes increasingly important later. An outline of a possible curative strategy is presented that attempts to take advantage of the subtle differences in the proliferative behavior of normal and Ph+ stem cells and the newly discovered selective inhibitors of Bcr-Abl. Leukemia (2003) 17, 1211-1262. doi:10.1038/sj.leu.2402912

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Fusion Proteins, bcr-abl / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Fusion Proteins, bcr-abl / genetics
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myelogenous, Chronic, BCR-ABL Positive / etiology
  • Leukemia, Myelogenous, Chronic, BCR-ABL Positive / pathology
  • Leukemia, Myelogenous, Chronic, BCR-ABL Positive / therapy*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Fusion Proteins, bcr-abl