How to Manage…

Leukemia (2012) 26, 1743–1751; doi:10.1038/leu.2012.57; published online 30 March 2012

How to manage acute promyelocytic leukemia

J-Q Mi1, J-M Li1, Z-X Shen1, S-J Chen1 and Z Chen1

1State Key Laboratory for Medical Genomics and Department of Hematology, Shanghai Institute of Hematology, Rui Jin Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, Shanghai, China

Correspondence: Dr J-Q Mi or Dr Z Chen, State Key Laboratory for Medical Genomics and Department of Hematology, Shanghai Institute of Hematology, Rui Jin Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, 197 Rui Jin Er Road, Shanghai 200025, China. E-mail: (J-QM) or (ZC)

Received 24 August 2011; Revised 20 February 2012; Accepted 21 February 2012
Accepted article preview online 16 March 2012; Advance online publication 30 March 2012



Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a unique subtype of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The prognosis of APL is changing, from the worst among AML as it used to be, to currently the best. The application of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) to the induction therapy of APL decreases the mortality of newly diagnosed patients, thereby significantly improving the response rate. Therefore, ATRA combined with anthracycline-based chemotherapy has been widely accepted and used as a classic treatment. It has been demonstrated that high doses of cytarabine have a good effect on the prevention of relapse for high-risk patients. However, as the indications of arsenic trioxide (ATO) for APL are being extended from the original relapse treatment to the first-line treatment of de novo APL, we find that the regimen of ATRA, combined with ATO, seems to be a new treatment option because of their targeting mechanisms, milder toxicities and improvements of long-term outcomes; this combination may become a potentially curable treatment modality for APL. We discuss the therapeutic strategies for APL, particularly the novel approaches to newly diagnosed patients and the handling of side effects of treatment and relapse treatment, so as to ensure each newly diagnosed patient of APL the most timely and best treatment.


acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL); all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA); arsenic trioxide (ATO)



Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a distinct subtype of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) characterized by its abnormal promyelocytes infiltrating bone marrow and other hematopoietic organs and its t(15;17) translocation leading to PML–RARα fusion gene. There have been tremendous innovations in therapeutic strategies and substantial improvement in the outcome of patients since the application of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA).1 The leukemia cells undergo terminal differentiation under the remission induction of ATRA, in contrast to cytolysis with conventional chemotherapy, which ameliorate the coagulopathy, thereby reducing the requirement of blood products and the difficulty of initial treatment. This effect has been particularly evident in developing countries, due to the limitations of medical resources. At present, ATRA combined with chemotherapy became the classic treatment of APL owing to the significantly improved long-term survival rate. The further amelioration of chemotherapy in the past two decades, for example, the application of high-dose cytosine arabinoside to high-risk patients2, 3 and the recognition of the importance of maintenance therapy,4 has led to further improvement of APL survival.5 However, it has always been our dream to lower the relapse rate and to reduce side effects through even more effective therapy targeting APL cells. The use of arsenic trioxide (ATO) in the last two decades, from salvage therapy for relapsed cases to the first-line therapy,6 gradually revealed its superiority in the treatment of APL, proven by a sizable proportion of patients cured by just a single agent as the compound directly targets PML–RARα. Moreover, a great majority of patients achieved a 5-year disease-free survival when treated with the combination of ATO and ATRA. Therefore, the association of ATO and ATRA5 is gradually being accepted by all. We have confidence in the hope that it will become a new standard treatment for APL, although the results of randomised comparisons are still being awaited.

In this review, we introduce the therapeutic strategies of APL, including the treatment of newly diagnosed and relapsed patients, as well as the ways to deal with the side effects. In addition, we show a novel paradigm of translational medicine here. The experimental and clinical researches have promoted and inspired each other, which has led to a revolution in the treatment of leukemia.


Leukemogenesis of APL and mechanisms underlying effect of ATRA/ATO

More than 98% of APL patients harbor t(15;17) in leukemia cells,7 which results in the fusion of RARα on chromosome 17 to PML on chromosome 15.8 The consequence is the generation of the PML–RARα fusion gene encoding a chimeric protein. APL has a nearly constant incidence with age, suggesting that it arises from a single rate-limiting genetic event and PML–RARα is the constant genomic abnormality in APL cells.9 Transgenic mice with PML–RARα develop a typical APL phenotype.10, 11 These findings in addition to other evidence have established PML–RARα as the key driver of APL leukemogenesis.

PML–RARα protein is an abnormal transcriptional factor, retaining N-terminal RBCC (RING, B Boxes and coiled coil) domains of PML and most portions of RARα.12 PML–RARα expression is believed to exert a dominant-negative dual-function on each of its parental proteins, which are demonstrated to be involved in various cellular processes such as myeloid differentiation, apoptosis and DNA replication and repair.13 Several crucial PML–RARα features contribute to APL pathogenesis, such as the absolute binding with RXRα,14, 15, 16 interaction with the chromatin remodeling complexes17, 18, 19 and functional disruption of other key myeloid transcription factors (that is, PU.1).20 In addition, other genetic alterations are present such as mutations in NRAS, KRAS, FLT3–internal tandem duplication (FLT3–ITD) and point mutations of FLT3–tyrosine kinase domain (FLT3–TKD) as well as Jak1,21, 22, 23 which favor APL progression in patients.

The critical role of PML–RARα in APL leukemogenesis has also suggested itself as a potential target for APL treatment. Indeed, PML–RARα represents the direct pharmaceutical target of two effective agents for APL, ATRA and ATO (Figure 1a). Arsenic binds to the RBCC domain of PML moiety,24, 25 whereas ATRA targets the RARα moiety of PML–RARα. Both the agents can induce the degradation of PML–RARα,26, 27, 28, 29 which probably accounts for their curable effects.

Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, please contact or the author

Molecular mechanisms of ATO and ATRA for APL. (a) Synergistically targeted therapy of ATO and ATRA in APL. Arsenic binds to PML moiety of PML–RARα while ATRA binds through its RARα moiety, both of which initiate the degradation of PML–RARα in a proteasome-dependent way. (b) ATO facilitates the clearance of LIC of APL.

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Leukemia-initiating cells (LICs) are a rare subpopulation in the bulk of leukemia, which are pluripotent, self-renewing and mitotically quiescent, and responsible for the development, progression and maintenance of leukemia.30 The non-cycling status and inherent or acquired drug-resistant feature of LICs make them insensitive to conventional chemotherapy, that could explain the later relapse of leukemia. Although nearly all the APL patients could obtain complete remission using ATRA or ATO as a single agent, most single ATRA-treated cases would relapse, contrarily to the situation of ATO, which could cure a sizable portion (around 65%) of the patients,31, 32, 33 suggesting that ATO targets the LICs in APL (Figure 1b). More recently, the targeted clearance of LICs by arsenic treatment has been reported in mouse models.34, 35 Besides PML–RARα, a number of proteins have been described to have an important role in the maintenance of LICs phenotype, many of which, indeed, have been shown to be targeted by arsenic, including PML,35 Gli2(ref. 36) and NFκB.37 However, ATRA has been reported to exert a dual effect on LICs: induction of differentiation in the more mature blast population and induction of proliferation and/or self-renewal of the LICs.38 Studies have shown that ex vivo treatment with ATRA decreases APL LICs frequency.34 However, secondary transplant recipients still develop APL,34 suggesting that ATRA cannot completely eradicate LICs. In vitro analysis of Sca1+/lin– murine hematopoietic stem cells transduced with PML–RARα has further shown that ATRA does not abrogate their stem cell capacity and further induces proliferation of LICs.38


Initial approach for suspected APL

In addition to common symptoms of leukemia, such as fever, infection and anemia, APL is also characterized by a severe life-threatening coagulopathy resulting from disseminated intravascular coagulation and/or fibrinolysis. Therefore, there are some difficulties in the treatment of this disease. It is found that leukocyte and platelet counts are important parameters to predict the prognosis of patients. According to Sanz score, patients can be divided into three groups: low risk of relapse (white blood cell (WBC) count <10 × 109/l, platelet count>40 × 109/l), intermediate risk (WBC count <10 × 109/l, platelet count less than or equal to40 × 109/l) and high risk (WBC count greater than or equal to10 × 109/l).39 Although it is reported from time to time that CD56 expression in patients with APL may be an independent factor predicting poor prognosis, further confirmation is needed.40, 41

We agree with the views of Sanz et al.42 that three simultaneous actions should be done when a diagnosis of APL is suspected: the start of ATRA therapy before confirmation of the diagnosis; institution of supportive measures; and rapid confirmation of genetic diagnosis. As Tallman et al.5 mentioned, bleeding is the most dangerous complication and represents a major cause of early death (ED) for the newly diagnosed APL patients. When APL is highly suspected with clinical symptoms such as peripheral blood smear and bone marrow morphology, it’s not necessary to wait for the confirmation by cytogenetic or molecular studies. Immediate application of ATRA would be a wise choice, so that the biological signs of APL coagulopathy could be improved rapidly, decreasing the risk of severe bleeding. For the high-risk patients with hyperleukocytosis (for example, WBC>10 × 109/l), once the diagnosis is confirmed, chemotherapy should be initiated as soon as possible (immediately or be delayed for up to 1 day) to prevent serious APL differentiation syndrome (DS).

Supportive measures are particularly important in the first few days after the beginning of APL treatment, especially for those counteracting the coagulopathy. Although severe bleedings can be significantly controlled with the use of ATRA, we still encounter a small number of patients being on the verge of death when they come to seek treatment, with chief complaints being serious bleedings.43 It must be emphasized that every positive effort should be made, both in detection and in treatment. The determination of blood count, fibrinogen level, prothrombin time and partial thromboplastin time should be performed at least twice a day. Appropriate measures should be taken, such as transfusions of fibrinogen, fresh frozen plasma and platelet concentrates, to maintain the platelet count at 30 × 109/l or more and fibrinogen level at 1.5g/l or more. In the circumstances of coagulopathy, the use of heparin has been basically abandoned, except in major deep vein thrombosis, which is very rare. It should be noted that lumbar puncture is not allowed until the coagulopathy is fully resolved in order to prevent iatrogenic bleeding, even for high-risk patients (such as patients with hyperleukocytosis). In addition, the newly diagnosed APL patients often present pancytopenia, and some of them develop agranulocytosis leading to serious infection. For this reason, it is essential to begin the anti-infectious therapy in a timely and appropriate manner.

Currently there are several common methods to establish the diagnosis, among which the fastest and the best is the reverse transcriptase PCR for the PML–RARα fusion transcript. It requires a small sample, is easy to perform, even in case of low WBCs, and its positive result directly indicates that the ATRA treatment should be effective.44 At the same time, we conduct karyotyping routinely. Although this procedure costs more time and energy, it remains a classic diagnostic tool. Especially, in patients lacking the typical PML–RARα fusion gene, other rare molecular subtypes could be identified by karyotyping, and subsequent reverse transcriptase PCR analysis, such as PLZF–RARα resulted from t(11;17) (q23; q21),45 NuMA–RARα from t(11;17) (q13; q21)46 and NPM1–RARα from t(5;17) (q35; q21).47 Florescence in situ hybridization analysis has a role in the diagnosis with its unique sensitivity and specificity, although it has limitations in probes. Florescence in situ hybridization remains currently the quickest method in some countries to confirm the diagnosis. Anti-PML monoclonal antibody testing is a relatively effective screening method with many advantages, such as specificity, quickness and easy performance, but it is not yet widely used clinically.48


Induction therapy

ATRA plus chemotherapy

Given that the efficacy of chemotherapy alone on APL was far from perfect, although some reports were surprisingly good, the search for a more effective therapy had been a long-time desire. A group from the Shanghai Institute of Hematology (SIH) revealed in the 1980s that ATRA could induce the cell differentiation of leukemic promyelocytes and could thus greatly improve the response rate of de novo APL. The complete remission (CR) rates are usually 87 to 94% using a classical dosage of 45mg/m2/day for 4 to 6 weeks.49 However, within 6 months of remission, 8 out of the 24 patients in the first reported series relapsed while even higher relapse rates were reported elsewhere, indicating that ATRA monotherapy still led to a relatively high recurrence rate.1, 50, 51 Several working groups worldwide confirmed that ATRA, followed by chemotherapy, was superior to chemotherapy alone.52, 53 Consequently, European APL group compared the efficacy of two regimens, which were ATRA plus chemotherapy and sequential ATRA followed by chemotherapy, respectively. It was found that the former regimen gave out a lower recurrence rate than the latter, with 2-year event-free survival (EFS) rates of 84 and 77%.54 ATRA plus chemotherapy (anthracyclines alone or with cytarabine (Ara-C)) has since been considered as the classic approach, in which the use of anthracyclines is mainly involved with daunorubicin and Idarubicin. Their effects were believed to be basically the same,5 except for a slight advantage of Idarubicin reported by a small number of literature, especially for the younger patients.55 Currently, we do not find significant effects of Ara-C for the low-risk patients (WBC count less than or equal to10 × 109/l). In a joint analysis of results from a LPA 99 trial Programa para el Estudio de la Terapeutica en Hemopatia Maligna (PETHEMA group), where patients received no Ara-C in addition to ATRA, a high cumulative dose of idarubicin, and mitoxantrone and an APL 2000 trial (French–Belgian–Swiss APL group), where patients received Ara-C in addition to ATRA and a lower cumulative dose of daunorubicin, 3-year survival was similar in patients with a WBC count less than 10 × 109/l; although, 3-year cumulative incidence of relapse was significantly lower in the LPA 99 trial: 4.2 versus 14.3% (P=0.03).4 However, for high-risk (WBC count>10 × 109/l) patients, large doses of Ara-C could act better.2, 4, 56

Although ATRA plus chemotherapy gained great effects, there are still problems such as relapse, severe side effects of chemotherapy and so on. The 5-year relapse-free survival and overall survival (OS) from SIH were only around 34.0 and 52%.57 That’s why we were trying to find other alternative clinical approaches. The aim was to further improve the cure rate. In this context, the appearance of ATO gives us new hope.

Introduction of ATO and ATRA/ATO combination therapy

Chinese groups were able to report on the first controlled study with pure ATO to deal with both relapsed and newly diagnosed APL patients.6, 29, 58 Of note, the response rate was as high as 85% among cases relapsed after previous ATRA and chemotherapy treatment. In line with these successful therapeutic practices, several working groups administered a single agent of ATO as first-line therapy, which turned out to be a good attempt and the effect was much better as compared with ATRA alone,59, 60, 61, 62 suggesting that ATO could target the leukemia stem cells in an APL setting.

Several lines of evidence prompted us to consider a possible new strategy in APL by combining ATRA and ATO for newly diagnosed patients. First, there is no obvious cross-resistance between ATRA and ATO.29, 58 Second, combination of the two agents allows a significantly prolonged survival or even disease eradication in APL animals.63, 64 Third, the two compounds target PML–RARα and modulate key networks involved in apoptosis/differentiation via distinct but related pathways.24, 65, 66 Mechanistically, the combined use of ATO with ATRA has brought about a conceptual revolution of synergistic targeting of leukemia and thus impacts the conventional chemotherapy-based treatment. Nevertheless, the possible additional side effects due to the combined use of the two agents likewise raised some concerns. We therefore carefully examined this aspect while conducting animal experiments and while analyzing the transcriptome and proteome analysis data. No obvious enhancement of side effects or further activation of stress pathways was detected. On the basis of these facts, we decided to initiate the new clinical trial of combination therapy in 2000. Indeed, we found61 that the ATRA/ATO combination for remission (with maintenance) therapy of APL brought much better results than either of the two drugs used alone in terms of the quality of CR and the status of the disease-free survival. According to data from the SIH, Kaplan–Meier estimates that the 5-year EFS and OS in a group of 85 newly diagnosed APL patients were 89.2% and 91.7%, respectively, demonstrating the high efficacy of ATRA/ATO treatment for newly diagnosed APL.67 Recent literature supports our data in that the CR rate and EFS were relatively higher in the working groups using ATO/ATRA combination 68, 69 compared with the groups using ATO alone.59, 60, 62 GIMEMA group carried out a randomized phase III study to compare ATO+ATRA versus standard ATRA+anthracycline-based chemotherapy (AIDA regimen) for newly diagnosed non high-risk APL. We are eagerly anticipating their results. Mathews et al.70 suggested that mutant FLT3 was not an adverse indicator of poor prognosis for APL with ATO-based therapy, which was supported by our group.67

At present, our induction therapy program is as follows 61, 67 (Figure 2): 25mg/m2 ATRA orally per day, and 0.16mg/kg As2O3 i.v. per day until documentation of CR. The reason for us to reduce the initial dose of 45mg/m2 ATRA, which was once our own recommendation, to 25mg/m2 is to avoid ATRA toxicity; we showed that this relatively low-dose ATRA achieved the same therapeutic effects as the conventional dosage,28 although the standard dose of 45mg/m2 is still used in many other medical centers worldwide. When the patient’s WBC is more than 10 × 109/l, we use hydroxyurea 20–40mg/kg daily at first, which can be effective in some patients, then 3 days after, switch to IA regimen if the WBC count keeps rising.

Figure 2.
Figure 2 - Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, please contact or the author

Shanghai APL trial. DA, DNR+Ara-C; DNR, Daunorubicin; HA, HH+Ara-C; HH, Homoharringtonine; HU, Hydroxyurea; 6-MP, 6-Mercaptopurine; MTX, Methotrexate.

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Our novel strategy in APL therapy has thus broken away from the conventional chemotherapy-based approaches to remission induction of leukemia, and it has translated the targeted killing effect of ATO on APL cells proven in experimental studies into clinical practice efficiently. In addition, our program has also demonstrated its economic advantages, especially as compared with high-dose chemotherapy. Currently in China, the daily cost of ATO (provided by Yida Pharmaceutical Company of the Harbin Medical University, Harbin, China) is 30 US dollars, whereas the ATRA (provided by Shanghai Rui Jin Hospital pharmacies, Shanghai, China) costs no more than 20 US dollars for each course (4–6 weeks) of treatment.

Introduction of other arsenic compounds for APL therapy

It was reported by Lu et al.71 that, instead of the first-line i.v. ATO treatment, oral tetra-arsenic tetra-sulfide (As4S4) also yielded good responses in APL patients. The randomized and controlled clinic trial, led by Peking University Institute of Hematology and SIH, investigating ATO or As4S4 combined with ATRA for the newly diagnosed APL, is being conducted in many hospitals in China. This clinical trial is scheduled to include 250 patients randomized to ATRA + ATO or ATRA + As4S4 group. Currently, the enrollment is nearing completion. The preliminary results suggested As4S4 yielded a similar CR and 2-year EFS rate as the ATO did. However, the side effects seemed fewer and the patients needed much less hospitalization time (Huang XJ et al., personal communication). We expect good results, for the oral As4S4 (provided by Tian Kang Pharmaceutical Company, Anhui, China) is more conveniently used, and also cheaper.


Consolidation therapy

Although consensus has not yet been reached on the details of specific consolidation therapy, it has been widely accepted that at least 2–3 times of anthracycline-based chemotherapy should be given to the low-risk and intermediate-risk patients.5, 49 However, there is no conclusion whether or not the administration of ATRA is really an advantage for the consolidation therapy, although some investigators reported that the relapse rate of APL was reduced in their results as compared with the historical control.72, 73

In 2006, the European APL Group reported2 a randomized study of 340 patients. For the high-risk patients (WBC>10 × 109/l), it was shown that adding Ara-C to anthracyclines was superior to high-dose anthracyclines used as single agents, especially in reducing relapse rate. In 2009, the same working group3 compared the results of APL93 trial and APL2000 trial and confirmed that high-dose Ara-C could significantly lower the cumulative incidence of relapse and ameliorate survival in high-risk patients, which was supported by both German AML Cooperative Group74 and PETHEMA Group.75 However, one should pay attention to the severe bone marrow suppression resulting from high-dose Ara-C, which could thereby increase the risk of serious infections.

Our recommendation is (Figure 2) three courses of consolidation therapy: Each course includes three consecutive regimens, that is, DA regimen (daunorubicin, 45mg/m2 per day for 3 days; Ara-C, 100mg/m2 per day for 7 days), Ara-C ‘pulse’ regimen (Ara-C, 1.5–2.5g/m2 per day for 3 days) and HA regimen (homoharringtonine, 2–3mg/m2 per day for 3 days; Ara-C, 100mg/m2 per day for 7 days). In the countries where homoharringtonine is unavailable, we recommend application of MA regimen (Mitoxantrone 6–10mg/m2 per day for 3 days, Ara-C 100mg/m2 per day for 7 days). This program can be said to be a supplement to the remission induction program mentioned above, for few chemotherapy is given in our remission induction regimen. However, in consideration of the toxicities of high-dose Ara-C, we just select the middle dosage.

In contrast, the remission induction regimen of the North American work group only consists of ATRA and conventional chemotherapy, which explains why this group aptly adds ATO in the consolidation therapy. According to the recent data of this important trial (Leukemia Intergroup Study C9710), the addition of ATO is an important improvement to the treatment strategy since the 3-year EFS reached 80%,76 which is consistent with our point of view that the treatment of APL should target both PML and RARα to fulfill a maximum efficacy. In this study, both of the two randomized groups were given the same induction therapy (ATRA, Ara-C and daunorubicin). For the consolidation regimen, the trial group received two 25-day courses of ATO consolidation immediately after induction, while the control group received two courses of consolidation therapy with ATRA plus daunorubicin. A very significant advantage in 3-year EFS and DFS (80% and 90%, respectively) was shown in the ATO group compared with the control group, although the results of the control group were slightly unsatisfactory. The administration of ATO allows us to generate further thinking: For the consolidation, can ATO replace all or part of the conventional chemotherapy? And, when is the best time to use ATO? Future research will tell us the answers to these questions of great interest.

No matter which consolidation therapy used, patients must reach a molecular remission (MR) (PCR negativity of PML–RARα in the marrow) before commencement of maintenance therapy. If not yet met, the prognosis of the patient will be poor, and salvage therapy should be considered. If MR is obtained after salvage, autologous hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation (HSCT) is suggested, but if the fusion gene transcripts are persistently positive, allogeneic HSCT should be recommended.


Maintenance therapy

The importance of ATRA plus chemotherapy maintenance was addressed by both the North American Intergroup Study I0129 and the European APL Group.53, 54 Ten years later, the European APL Group re-analyzed this issue. It was shown that the 10-year relapse rate was the lowest (13.4%) in the ATRA plus chemotherapy maintenance group, as compared with that of chemotherapy alone, ATRA alone as maintenance and no maintenance groups, which were 23.4%, 33% and 43.2%, respectively. The differences of relapse rates were more significant in the patients with initial WBC count higher than 5 × 109/l, which was 20.6% with combined (ATRA plus chemotherapy) maintenance and 68.4% with no maintenance. However, the Japan Adult Leukemia Study Group (JALSG) found little difference with or without maintenance. One explanation to this situation could be that the JALSG trial only compared no maintenance versus six courses of intensified maintenance chemotherapy rather than ATRA maintenance.77

Although ATRA plus chemotherapy was originally considered to be the best solution of maintenance therapy, with our in-depth in vitro study on the mechanisms of ATRA and ATO, a better understanding has been obtained on the importance of the combined use of various drugs with different therapeutic targets. Thus, for the maintenance treatment, we have been optimizing the idea of ATO/ATRA combined with chemotherapy. On the basis of a previous report,61 our maintenance therapy currently consists of five cycles of sequential use of ATRA, ATO and low-dose chemotherapy (Figure 2): ATRA, 25mg/m2 per day for 30 days; As2O3, 0.16mg/kg per day for 30 days; 6-mercaptopurine, 100mg/day for 30 days or 15–40mg of methotrexate once a week for 4 weeks. Notably, the 5-year relapse-free survival and OS of our patients who achieved CR were 94.8% and 97.4%, respectively.67

Although it was usually a common practice to avoid CNS prophylaxis for patients without hyperleukocytosis, among whom the risk of CNS relapse is extremely low,42 we still recommend 4–6 times of CNS prophylaxis, methotrexate (10–15mg), dexamethasone (5mg) (or Prednisolone 40mg) and Ara-C (40–50mg), during maintenance therapy, in considering that the first site of relapse was exclusively the CNS in all of the total four relapses out of our recent series of 80 patients achieving complete remission, and most of the relapsed patients exhibited no hyperleukocytosis initially.67 Nevertheless, for the patients with high WBC counts, the CNS prophylaxis should be carried out for at least 6–8 times.



DS is a common life-threatening complication in the ATRA or ATO treatment, with a frequency being around 25% both in US and in Europe.53, 78 The common clinical symptoms were dyspnea with interstitial pulmonary infiltrates, peripheral edema, unexplained fever, weight gain, hypotension and acute renal failure.79 When these happen, early use of chemotherapy and high dose of dexamethasone can decrease the mortality down to 1% or lower.42

It has been described that prophylactic treatment of APL DS by prednisolone can reduce the incidence of DS significantly,80 but it is risky to use the steroids routinely as prophylaxis. We echo Dr Tallman’s view: ‘caution should be exercised, because the administration of corticosteroids to neutropenic patients may predispose them to infection, such as sepsis, or fungal infection’.5 Therefore, only in the treatment of patients with hyperleukocytosis (at least WBC>30 × 109/l) at diagnosis, sometimes accompanied by coagulopathy, should dexamethasone be given preventively at a dose of 10mg twice daily. Moreover, when dealing with DS, corticosteroids can also participate in hemostasis.

Troubled by the serious DS, since the late 1990s, at SIH, ATRA has been used at an oral dose of 25mg/m2 per day as a routine treatment for APL patients, after a study showing that lower doses of ATRA had the same therapeutic effect as the conventional dosage but with fewer side effects, including DS.28, 61 In the past two decades, the frequency of DS in our patients has been very low,67 with the exception of a few patients presenting hyperleukocytosis at the diagnosis of the disease.


Side effects of ATO

ATO proves to be quite safe. When compared with anthracyclines, bone marrow myelosuppression due to ATO appears to be minor. The common adverse effects are mainly grade I–II hepatotoxicity, gastrointestinal reactions, neurotoxicity and very rarely, grade III–IV hepatotoxicity, which are usually reversible.59, 60 Thus, in clinical practice, we recommend administration of some therapeutic agents (for example, Diammonium Glycyrrizinate, a drug based on the Traditional Chinese Medicine; Polyene Phosphatidylcholine) to prevent liver damage.

Another important potential adverse event related to ATO is manifested by prolongation of the QT interval on the ECG, which may lead to torsade de pointes, a life-threatening ventricular arrhythmia. Proper management of patients given ATO emphasizes ECG monitoring and maintenance of electrolyte within normal ranges, for example, the serum potassium above 4.0mEq/l and serum magnesium above 1.8mg/dl. In patients whose absolute QT interval value is longer than 500ms, ATO should be withheld or discontinued if necessary.81, 82, 83

The total dose of ATO is 1600–1800mg in our entire treatment regimen. We believe that this dosage is safe, as no patient discontinued the treatment because of the toxicity of ATO. At the same time, arsenic concentrations in the urine of patients who had ceased maintenance treatment for 2 years were below the safety limits recommended by government agencies in several countries or regions, whereas arsenic levels in plasma, nails and hair were only slightly higher than those found in healthy controls.67


Management of relapse

The determination of minimal residual disease is especially important to the patients in remission. The first sign of recurrence is usually indicated by the PCR detection of PML–RARα transcripts in bone marrow. The vast majority of patients relapse in the first 3 years after the end of treatment;84 however, there are also individuals who only relapse in the extramedullary sites (such as the CNS).

A number of international clinical trials, such as the APL study of German AML Cooperative Group (GMLCG) including HD ARAC-C, the APL2000 trial of European APL Group and ours, have shown that the CR rate of APL is more than 90%,1, 4, 74 the 10-year relapse free survival was similar in GMLCG (75.5%) as that of European APL Group (76.3%), but there are still about 25% of patients who suffer from relapse.85 For the APL patients in relapse, the treatment strategy is remission re-induction and remission consolidation.5, 49

ATO is considered to be the first-line treatment of relapsed APL without previous exposure to the compound, which could allow a remission rate of re-induction to more than 80%.86 In a multi-center clinical study in the US, 40 relapsed APL patients were given ATO as remission induction, and 34 (85%) of them achieved CR. With subsequent ATO treatment or HSCT, the 18-month OS and relapse-free survival were 66% and 56%, respectively.81 Alimoghaddam et al.87 have also conducted similar research in which 31 patients who relapsed from ATRA plus chemotherapy were reinduced to remission and consolidated by a single agent of ATO. After a median time of 32 months of follow-up, it was found that 10 (41.6%) patients relapsed in the 24 CR2 patients. The 2-year DFS and OS were 54.6% and 81.1%, respectively. This report from Iran reminds us that, although the single agent of ATO is quite effective on remission induction, the recurrence rate after CR2 induced by ATO is not low. Thus, post-remission therapy is essential for the prognosis of patients.

Once CR2 is achieved, the treatment strategy after induction therapy remains controversial. The options include continued administration of ATO, ATRA combined with chemotherapy and/or ATO, and HSCT.49, 88 Thirugnanam et al.89 treated 37 patients with relapsed APL. Of these patients, 33 attained MR with ATO-based induction therapy (including three types of regimens, that is, ATO alone, ATO plus ATRA, ATO plus ATRA plus anthracycline). Among them, 14 patients chose autologous stem cell transplantation as subsequent treatment, and the remaining 19 were given a single agent of ATO or ATO combined with ATRA. The 5-year EFS of these two groups of patients were 83.33% and 34.45% (P=0.01), respectively, as calculated with the Kaplan–Meier method. In the study of Ferrara et al.,90 of the six patients who underwent autologous stem cell transplantation after achieving MR after relapse, five survived and remained in MR for a long term, and only one died of primary disease after recurrence. In 2007, the European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation compared the follow-up data of 625 patients treated by HSCT and found that there was no significant difference in leukemia-free survival between the autologous group and the allogeneic group,91 with a lower transplant-related mortality and a higher relapse incidence in the autologous group. We therefore recommend that, for patients with relapsed APL, once MR is achieved by ATO-based therapy, the autologous stem cell transplantation should be conducted, whereas for those who can not achieve MR, allogeneic stem cell transplantation could be the choice.

As an anti-CD33 monoclonal antibody, gemtuzumab ozogamicin (GO) was approved by the US FDA in 2000 for the single-agent treatment of elder patients with relapsed APL. The recommended dose was 9mg/m2 i.v. (given on days 1 and 15). As the CD33 antigen is often expressed on the surface of APL cells, the administration of GO could increase the MR rate. Lo-Coco et al.92 gave GO to 16 molecularly relapsed patients, 14 patients responded, with a median MR time of 15 months for 7 of them, with the other 7 patients relapsing soon after. Among the relapsed patients, two continued GO treatment and both achieved MR again. It was demonstrated that a single agent of GO exerts significant effects on the APL patients with molecular relapse. As to the combination therapy, Aribi had conducted relevant research88 in which the re-remission rate was 100% with combination treatment of ATO, ATRA and GO. However, because of the limited sample size (n=8), these data need to be further investigated.


CNS relapse

As the prognosis of APL patients is getting much better, the issue of CNS relapse is becoming increasingly important and we believe an overall treatment strategy of APL seems unreasonable without intrathecal prophylaxis. At present, the relapse rate is more than 1% in a 5-year follow-up, especially in patients with initial WBC greater than 10 × 109/l, in which the recurrence rate could exceed 5%.49, 93 Once a CNS relapse is recognized, we recommend intrathecal therapy with methotrexate (10–15mg), dexamethasone (5mg) (or Prednisolone 40mg) and Ara-C (40–50mg) 2–3 times per week until complete clearance of blasts in the cerebrospinal fluid. At the same time, systemic medication, including ATO and ATRA, should be started. However, simultaneous chemotherapy is not recommended because of its myeloablative effect resulting in a rapid decline in platelets count, which may lead to the unavailability of lumbar puncture. Subsequently, at least 6–8 intrathecal therapiess are to be performed as consolidation. Owing to unfortunately repeated lumbar punctures, each of them should be carried out cautiously. The chemotherapy drugs should be injected after confirmation of the successfulness of the procedure, thereby reducing the iatrogenic possibilities of paralysis resulted from multiple intrathecal therapies. For consolidation chemotherapy, regimens with high CNS penetration (for example, high-dose Ara-C) could be given, and allogeneic or autologous transplants including appropriate craniospinal irradiation should be under consideration.


Future perspectives

It has been 27 years since 1985, when the world’s first patient received ATRA in Shanghai. APL has experienced the conversion from the most lethal to the most curable acute leukemia. The ways of treatment have also turned from the original single chemotherapy to comprehensive treatment, which consists of not only chemotherapy, but particularly targeting therapy of ATRA and ATO and salvage therapy of autologous or allogeneic HSCT, as well.

Although good prognosis has been demonstrated in APL as compared with other leukemia, how to further improve the cure rate is always a question worth thinking about. ED, the term proposed 20 years ago when ATRA had not been widely used,94 has recently attracted attention again from investigators.33, 95, 96 Park et al.97 reported 1400 cases of APL from 1992 to 2007, the overall ED rate was 17.3%, and only a modest change in ED was observed over time. Lehmann et al.98 reported 105 cases of APL patients among whom the frequency of ED (within 30 days) actually reached 29%, a rate significantly higher than those in non-APL AML, especially evident in the elderly (>60 years) population. For those EDs, 41% died from hemorrhagic complications, most of which were CNS bleeding. Therefore, early diagnosis, and proper handling of hemorrhagic diathesis is proven to be especially important.98 Thus, for the novo APL patients, the treatment should be further optimized. Our aim is to deliver the most timely and best treatment to each newly diagnosed APL patient, that is, to mobilize our entire human and material resources if necessary, including emergency room, intensive care unit, multi-disciplinary team of physicians and nurses, to ensure the maximum saving of lives at the onset of disease. More importantly, as Park et al.97 mentioned, there is a clear need to provide the knowledge necessary to recognize APL as a medical emergency that requires specific and simultaneous actions, including a prompt initiation of ATRA, aggressive supportive care to counteract the coagulopathy and transfer to experienced medical centers when the disease is first suspected.

For those high-risk patients, we are further looking for better treatment; will it be the median-dose or high-dose chemotherapy, or ATO, or even a combination of both? The answer is to be given in the future series of clinical trials. However, for those low-risk patients, ATO+ATRA combined with less chemotherapy may be a more appropriate choice. In our 85 cases of APL patients,67 none of them developed therapy-related myelodysplastic syndrome-acute myelogenous leukemia or other malignancies. The possible explanation may be the absence of VP-16 in our protocol, and also may be the relatively lower intensity of chemotherapy. In the reports of working groups with more intensive chemotherapy, for example, in the GIMEMA group using VP-16, the incidence of MDS or AML after APL treatment was 6.5%, whereas in the studies of European APL group which omitted the application of VP16 that incidence was 0.97%.99, 100

The cheaper prices of ATRA and ATO (provided by the Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturers) make them widely used in China. In some other developing countries like India and Iran ATO is also available, however, these two drugs are more expensive on international markets, especially ATO. Thus, they are often more accessible in the richer North America and Western countries, yet lack affordability to the APL patients from many other countries. For this reason, we regret that such a good treatment is difficult to be widely spread because of economic reasons. To a certain extent, there is an absence in the fairness of health care for those patients in poor countries. Currently, the As4S4 developed independently in China is similar to the ATO in terms of efficacy, and its oral administration makes it more conveniently used. After further clarifying its efficacy, in consideration of its relatively lower price, we will encourage the Chinese companies to provide it to the world when possible at a reasonably low cost, to make sure that each patient receives treatment of an equally high quality.

However, arsenic is not a panacea, and there are still relapses after ATO. Recently, a Japanese working group demonstrated from a study of two cases of relapsed patients that the mechanism for ATO-resistance may be missense mutations in PML–RARα coding sequence, resulting in amino-acid substitutions of A216V and L218P in the PML B2 motif of the RBCC domain.101 On the other hand, we recently found DNMT3A mutations in a relapsed patient.102 These results have prompted us to further identify the mechanisms of drug resistance in future work, so that the subset of patients who may develop resistance could be screened out earlier in the treatment, and specific therapeutic strategies can be given from the very beginning, to finally alter the prognosis of these patients.

It should be particularly emphasized that where ATO or conventional ATRA is ineffective, either given alone or combined, other different therapeutic strategies, such as liposomal ATRA, can be tried under permitting conditions. Douer et al.103 reported that liposomal ATRA was effective in inducing CR in newly diagnosed and relapsed patients, and it can induce MRs without chemotherapy in some patients, especially in the low-risk cases. However, this drug is currently unavailable commercially, and we are looking forward to more and better results.104

How to improve the quality of life of patients without affecting treatment efficacy? It is also an issue we are often thinking about. Oral ATRA, oral arsenics and even oral chemotherapy drugs have given rise to our expectations. We believe that the successful model of APL can also shed light on the therapy of other acute leukemias, and even solid tumors, thereby improving the efficacy of our anti-tumor therapy in various fields.


Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.



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This work was supported in part by the Chinese National Key Basic Research Project (973: 2010CB529203). We would like to thank to Drs Kan-Kan Wang and Xiao-Wei Zhang for their expert contributions to the study on the leukemogenesis of APL.