Pathogenesis, diagnosis and monitoring of residual disease in acute promyelocytic leukaemia

Acta Haematol. 2004;112(1-2):55-67. doi: 10.1159/000077560.


The clinical course of acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) has changed over the last 25 years from one that was fatal for the majority of patients to representing one of the most curable subtypes of acute myeloid leukaemia. Besides improved supportive care this has mainly been achieved through the introduction of novel targeted therapies in the form of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic trioxide that specifically address the underlying molecular lesion. APL is characterized by chromosomal rearrangements of 17q21 leading to the formation of fusion proteins involving retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARA). To date five different fusion partners of RARA have been identified, but the vast majority of cases are characterized by the presence of the t(15;17)(q22;q12-21), which involves the promyelocytic leukaemia (PML) gene. The identification of different breakpoint microclusters within RARA intron 2 suggests that sequence-associated or structural factors play a role in the formation of the t(15;17). In addition, the comparison of forward and reverse genomic junctions has revealed microhomologies, deletions and/or duplications of either gene consistent with the hypothesis that the t(15;17) occurs by non-homologous recombination of DNA after processing of the double strand breaks by a dysfunctional DNA damage repair mechanism. The detection of the PML-RARA fusion gene by reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) is routinely used for diagnosis and monitoring of minimal residual disease (MRD). In PML-RARA-positive APL about 70% of patients are expected to be cured with a combination of ATRA and anthracycline-based chemotherapy. However, relapse remains a major problem. The identification of patients at high risk of relapse and the development of risk-adapted treatment schedules are therefore clearly the most challenging tasks in the treatment of APL. Recent studies have shown that pre-emptive chemotherapy at the time of molecular relapse improves survival compared to treatment at the point of haematological relapse. Quantitative RT-PCR technology is expected to further improve the predictive value of MRD monitoring and therefore to guide therapy in order to reduce the rate of relapses and to increase rates of cure in high-risk patients.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / diagnosis*
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / etiology*
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / genetics
  • Neoplasm, Residual / diagnosis
  • Neoplasm, Residual / etiology
  • Neoplasm, Residual / genetics
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid / genetics
  • Retinoic Acid Receptor alpha
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Translocation, Genetic


  • RARA protein, human
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid
  • Retinoic Acid Receptor alpha