Human acute leukemias include acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). It is estimated that 5,200 and 13,410 cases will be diagnosed with and 1,420 and 8,990 will die of ALL and AML, respectively, in the United States in 2007. Although remarkable progress has been made in the past decades in the treatment and in the understanding of the biology of acute leukemias, the 5-year overall survival rate of patients with AML is only approximately 22%, which is much lower than that of ALL patients (65%; http://seer.cancer.gov). One of the most exciting recent findings is the discovery of an abundant class of small (∼22 nt), non-(protein-)coding RNAs, called microRNAs (miRNAs, miRs), which can function as oncogenes and tumor suppressors, whose deregulation is clearly associated with the development of cancer. To understand the distinct mechanisms in leukemogenesis between ALL and AML and to identify novel markers for diagnosis and treatment of acute leukemia, we have performed a large-scale miRNA expression profiling assay with a bead-based flow cytometric method and identified 27 differentially expressed miRNAs. Among them, miR-128a and b are significantly overexpressed while let-7b and miR-223 are significantly down-regulated in ALL compared to AML. They are the most discriminatory miRNAs between ALL and AML. Using the expression signatures of any two of the four most significantly discriminatory miRNAs in diagnosis of ALL and AML resulted in an accuracy rate of 97–100%. The differential expression patterns of these four miRNAs were validated further through quantitative real-time PCR on 98 acute leukemia samples covering most of the common cytogenetic subtypes of AML and B- and T-cell ALL, along with 10 normal controls. Furthermore, we found that overexpression of miR-128a and b in ALL was at least partly associated with hypomethylation, rather than amplification of DNA locus copy. Moreover, several important target genes of these four miRNAs have also been validated. We are currently exploring the role of these four miRNAs and their critical target genes in leukemogenesis and in the determination of lineage fate during leukemia development using in vitro and in vivo models. This work will enhance our understanding of the biological role of these miRNAs and their targets in leukemogenesis, and in determining the lineage fate of acute leukemia.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.