Acute promyelocytic leukemia: from highly fatal to highly curable

Blood. 2008 Mar 1;111(5):2505-15. doi: 10.1182/blood-2007-07-102798.


Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a distinct subtype of acute myeloid leukemia. Morphologically, it is identified as the M3 subtype of acute myeloid leukemia by the French-American-British classification and cytogenetically is characterized by a balanced reciprocal translocation between chromosomes 15 and 17, which results in the fusion between promyelocytic leukemia (PML) gene and retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARalpha). It seems that the disease is the most malignant form of acute leukemia with a severe bleeding tendency and a fatal course of only weeks. Chemotherapy (CT; daunorubicin, idarubicin and cytosine arabinoside) was the front-line treatment of APL with a complete remission (CR) rate of 75% to 80% in newly diagnosed patients. Despite all these progresses, the median duration of remission ranged from 11 to 25 months and only 35% to 45% of the patients could be cured by CT. Since the introduction of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) in the treatment and optimization of the ATRA-based regimens, the CR rate was raised up to 90% to 95% and 5-year disease free survival (DFS) to 74%. The use of arsenic trioxide (ATO) since early 1990s further improved the clinical outcome of refractory or relapsed as well as newly diagnosed APL. In this article, we review the history of introduction of ATRA and ATO into clinical use and the mechanistic studies in understanding this model of cancer targeted therapy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • Arsenic Trioxide
  • Arsenicals / chemistry
  • Arsenicals / therapeutic use
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / drug therapy*
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / history
  • Oxides / chemistry
  • Oxides / therapeutic use
  • Tretinoin / chemistry
  • Tretinoin / therapeutic use


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Arsenicals
  • Oxides
  • Tretinoin
  • Arsenic Trioxide