Arsenic trioxide in hematological malignancies: the new discovery of an ancient drug

Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2006 Dec;7(6):397-405. doi: 10.2174/138920106779116829.


Currently, Arsenic Trioxide (ATO) is considered the treatment of choice for patients with relapsed acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Recently, a durable remission with minimal toxicity by single agent ATO or ATO + ATRA in newly diagnosed APL was reported by different groups. These regimens have minimal toxicity and can be administered on an outpatient basis after remission induction, thus they could become a real, less toxic and more economic option to ATRA + anthracyclines in particular in low risk APL, or in patients that cannot undergo chemotherapy because of age or comorbid conditions and in patients that refuse chemotherapy. Significantly, these therapies are a successful attempt to cure a tumoral disease without chemotherapy. The results of clinical trials of ATO administration as single agent in multiple myeloma (MM) and myelodisplastic syndromes (MDS) were encouraging and showed clinical effects but they were not close to APL success. On the contrary, results of clinical trials to treat non-APL acute myeloid leukemia (AML) were disappointing. We suggest that a combination therapy with drugs targeting specific pro-survival molecules or capable to enhance pro-apoptotic pathways may lead to an improvement of ATO efficacy against hematological malignancies, in particular AML. Our pre-clinical studies showed that ATO is capable to induce cell death in acute leukemia cells but the apoptotic function is limited since it can induce also a mechanism of cell defense by activating pro-survival molecules such as MEK-ERK, Bcl-xL, Bcl-2. By combining ATO with specific MEK inhibitors, we demonstrated that the block of MEK-ERK phosphorylation, the induction of Bad de-phosphorylation, and activation of p53AIP1 apoptotic pathway interrupt the pro-survival mechanisms of ATO and kill the leukemic cells by apoptotic synergism. Our results provide an experimental basis for combined or sequential treatment with MEK inhibitors and ATO in AML. The renaissance of ATO as a drug in moderne medicine may be considered, together with ATRA success, a victory of empirical analysis, that had (and has) great impact on Chinese culture.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Arsenic Trioxide
  • Arsenicals / therapeutic use*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / trends*
  • Hematologic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Multiple Myeloma / drug therapy*
  • Oxides / therapeutic use*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / trends
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Arsenicals
  • Oxides
  • Arsenic Trioxide