Background: CD33 (Siglec-3) is becoming increasingly important as a target of antibody-mediated therapy in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). In normal myelopoiesis, expression of CD33 is restricted to advanced stages of differentiation, whereas primitive stem cells do not express CD33. In the present study, we asked whether leukaemic stem cells in patients with AML express CD33.
Materials and methods: A multicolour-staining technique was applied in 11 patients with AML, and leukaemic progenitors defined as CD34(+)/CD38(-)/CD123(+) cells. AML stem cells were purified by cell sorting and were examined for expression of CD33 mRNA by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).
Results: In all patients in whom the majority of myeloblasts expressed CD33 (n = 8), AML progenitors reacted with the CD33 antibody P67.6. Repopulation experiments utilizing irradiated NOD/SCID mice confirmed that AML stem cells in these patients reside within the CD33(+) subpopulation of the leukaemic clone. Moreover, highly purified AML stem cells (> 98% purity) from patients with CD33(+) AML were found to express CD33 mRNA in RT-PCR analyses. CD33 was neither detectable on CD34(+)/CD38(-) cells in normal bone marrow nor on leukaemic stem cells in patients with CD33-negative AML.
Conclusions: Leukaemic stem cells in patients with CD33(+) AML express CD33. This observation is in favour of novel treatment concepts employing CD33-targeting antibodies in AML.