B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is characterized by accumulation of immature hematopoietic cells in the bone marrow, a well-established sanctuary site for leukemic cell survival during treatment. While standard of care treatment results in remission in most patients, a small population of patients will relapse, due to the presence of minimal residual disease (MRD) consisting of dormant, chemotherapy-resistant tumor cells. To interrogate this clinically relevant population of treatment refractory cells, we developed an in vitro cell model in which human ALL cells are grown in co-culture with human derived bone marrow stromal cells or osteoblasts. Within this co-culture, tumor cells are found in suspension, lightly attached to the top of the adherent cells, or buried under the adherent cells in a population that is phase dim (PD) by light microscopy. PD cells are dormant and chemotherapy-resistant, consistent with the population of cells that underlies MRD. In the current study, we characterized the transcriptional signature of PD cells by RNA-Seq, and these data were compared to a published expression data set derived from human MRD B-cell ALL patients. Our comparative analyses revealed that the PD cell population is markedly similar to the MRD expression patterns from the primary cells isolated from patients. We further identified genes and key signaling pathways that are common between the PD tumor cells from co-culture and patient derived MRD cells as potential therapeutic targets for future studies.
© 2021. The Author(s).