The BCR-ABL oncogene induces human Philadelphia-positive (Ph+) B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) that advances to acute phase of CML called blast crisis. In this acute phase, CML patients can develop either B-ALL or acute myeloid leukemia. In B-ALL, differentiation of leukemic cells are blocked at pro-/pre-B stage, and the underlying mechanism is unknown. We hypothesize that this blockade of B-cell differentiation may be important for the development of B-ALL induced by BCR-ABL, and if so, promotion of B-leukemic cell differentiation would create a novel therapeutic strategy for B-ALL. To test this hypothesis, we first compared the percentages of IgM+ B-leukemic cells in BALB/c and C57BL/6 (B6) mice with BCR-ABL-induced B-ALL, because we have previously found that B-ALL develops more quickly in BALB/c mice than in B6 mice (

Li et al,
J. Exp. Med.
). We expressed BCR-ABL in bone marrow (BM) using retroviral transduction and transplantation in these two different strains of inbred mice to induce B-ALL. There were significantly more peripheral blood B220+ B cells in BALB/c B-ALL mice than those in B6 mice, correlating to faster B-ALL in BALB/c mice than in B6 mice. Among these B220+ cells, IgM+ cells were much less in BALB/c mice than in B6 mice. We also compared rearrangement of the B cell antigen receptor (BCR) heavy chains (m chains) between BALB/c and B6 backgrounds using BCR-ABL-expressing pro-B cell lines isolated from the B-ALL mice. Normal m chains rearrangement was found in B6 leukemic cells, but not in BALB/c leukemic cells. These results indicate that more differentiated B-leukemic cells are associated with less aggressive disease. To further demonstrate the role of blockade of B-cell differentiation in B-ALL development, we induced B-leukemic cell differentiation by co-expression of BCR-ABL and intact immunoregulatory tyrosine activation motifs (ITAM) contained in immunoglobulin (Ig)_/Igß complexes in BM cells of B-ALL mice, comparing to expression of BCR-ABL alone. We treated these mice with imatinib (orally, 100 mg/kg, twice a day). The treated mice with B-ALL induced by co-expression of BCR-ABL and ITAM lived three-week longer than those with B-ALL induced by BCR-ABL only, with some mice in long-term remission. Prolonged survival was associated with 50% increased B220+/IgM+ B-leukemic cells in peripheral blood of the mice. Taken together, our results demonstrate that blockade of B-cell differentiation is critical for the development of B-ALL induced by BCR-ABL, and provide a rationale for combination therapy of B-ALL with imatinib and induction of leukemic cell differentiation.

Author notes

Corresponding author