Recent advances in acute myeloid leukemia stem cell biology

Haematologica. 2012 Jul;97(7):966-74. doi: 10.3324/haematol.2011.054734. Epub 2012 Apr 17.


The existence of cancer stem cells has long been postulated, but was proven less than 20 years ago following the demonstration that only a small sub-fraction of leukemic cells from acute myeloid leukemia patients were able to propagate the disease in xenografts. These cells were termed leukemic stem cells since they exist at the apex of a loose hierarchy, possess extensive self-renewal and the ability to undergo limited differentiation into leukemic blasts. Acute myeloid leukemia is a heterogeneous condition at both the phenotypic and molecular level with a variety of distinct genetic alterations giving rise to the disease. Recent studies have highlighted that this heterogeneity extends to the leukemic stem cell, with this dynamic compartment evolving to overcome various selection pressures imposed upon it during disease progression. The result is a complex situation in which multiple pools of leukemic stem cells may exist within individual patients which differ both phenotypically and molecularly. Since leukemic stem cells are thought to be resistant to current chemotherapeutic regimens and mediate disease relapse, their study also has potentially profound clinical implications. Numerous studies have generated important recent advances in the field, including the identification of novel leukemic stem cell-specific cell surface antigens and gene expression signatures. These tools will no doubt prove invaluable for the rational design of targeted therapies in the future.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, CD / genetics
  • Antigens, Surface / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics*
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Cell Lineage / genetics
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / genetics
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / metabolism
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / pathology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Antigens, CD
  • Antigens, Surface
  • Biomarkers, Tumor