Background: HLA-DR antigen is present on hematopoietic progenitors and granulocyte/monocyte, erythrocyte and megakaryocytic precursors but absent at the promyelocytic stage during myeloid cell maturation. In accordance with this, majority of promyelocytic leukemia (APL) cells were negative for HLA-DR. Meanwhile, some of non-APL acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells is found to express HLA-DR. However, the clinical significance of HLA-DR antigen on AML cells is currently unclear.

Purpose: We sought to determine the prevalence and clinical characteristics of negativity in HLA-DR expression by retrospectively analyzing 181 consecutive patients with de novo adult AML.

Patients and Methods: AML patients examined in the current study (aged 15–86 years) had been diagnosed between August 1995 and July 2004, and categorized to M0 (8 patients), M1 (35), M2 (74), M3 (20), M4 (25), M5 (15), and M6 (4), based on the FAB classification. Median follow-up time was 19.3 months. Phenotypic analyses of leukemic cells were performed using CD45 gating methods. HLA-DR-negative AML was defined as HLA-DR expression less than 20% of cells in the CD45 leukemic cell gate.

Results: Among 181 patients, HLA-DR antigens were not detected on AML cells from 46 patients; 20 with APL and 26 with non-APL (non-APL/DR(−)), the latter of which included M0 (2 patients), M1 (15), M2 (7), M4 (2). Leukemic cells from other non-APL patients were HLA-DR-positive (non-APL/DR(+)). None of non-APL/DR(−) patients had t(15;17) nor PML/RARa rearrangement on cytogenetic analysis. Twenty out of 26 patients with non-APL/DR(−) had normal chromosome, and 6 had abnormal karyotypes. In the non-APL/DR(−) group, various degrees of nuclear folding, convolution, or lobulation were observed in 9 patients. Although treatment response and overall survival rate were similar in the three groups (APL, non-APL/DR(−), and non-APL/DR(+)), both FDP levels at diagnosis (57.3 vs 13.2, p<0.05) and maximal FDP levels (232.6 vs 43.8, p<0.01) were significantly higher in non-APL/DR(−) compared with non-APL/DR(+). The maximal FDP levels in the non-APL/DR(−) patients were comparable to those in the APL patients. FDP levels greater than 40 mg/ml were significantly more prevalent in the non-APL/DR(−) than in the the non-APL/DR(−) group. Logistic regression analysis demonstrated that low HLA-DR expression was an independent risk factor for FDP > 40 mg/ml.

Conclusion: Our study suggests that AML with negative HLA-DR antigen tend to be associated with abnormality in coagulation and fibrinolysis even if they are genetically non-APL. We propose that more attention should be paied for HLA-DR expression to avoid a devastating coagulopathy which carries a high risk of mortality unless specifically addressed.

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