In acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), central nervous system (CNS) involvement is a major clinical concern. Despite nondetectable CNS leukemia in many cases, prophylactic CNS-directed conventional intrathecal chemotherapy is required for relapse-free survival, indicating subclinical CNS manifestation in most patients. However, CNS-directed therapy is associated with long-term sequelae, including neurocognitive deficits and secondary neoplasms. Therefore, molecular mechanisms and pathways mediating leukemia-cell entry into the CNS need to be understood to identify targets for prophylactic and therapeutic interventions and develop alternative CNS-directed treatment strategies. In this study, we analyzed leukemia-cell entry into the CNS using a primograft ALL mouse model. We found that primary ALL cells transplanted onto nonobese diabetic/severe combined immunodeficiency mice faithfully recapitulated clinical and pathological features of meningeal infiltration seen in patients with ALL. ALL cells that had entered the CNS and were infiltrating the meninges were characterized by high expression of vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF). Although cellular viability, growth, proliferation, and survival of ALL cells were found to be independent of VEGF, transendothelial migration through CNS microvascular endothelial cells was regulated by VEGF. The importance of VEGF produced by ALL cells in mediating leukemia-cell entry into the CNS and leptomeningeal infiltration was further demonstrated by specific reduction of CNS leukemia on in vivo VEGF capture by the anti-VEGF antibody bevacizumab. Thus, we identified a mechanism of ALL-cell entry into the CNS, which by targeting VEGF signaling may serve as a novel strategy to control CNS leukemia in patients, replacing conventional CNS-toxic treatment.
© 2017 by The American Society of Hematology.