Several lines of evidence indicate a central role for stem cells in the pathogenesis of human leukaemias and exemplify the need to develop strategies that target this sub-population of cells. It is proposed that these cells may exhibit different chemo-sensitivity and consequently may be resistant to drug regimens designed to kill the bulk leukaemia population. Inherently resistant leukaemia stem cells may contribute to subsequent disease relapse. Clearly, there is a need to assess the relative efficacy of therapeutic agents on the sub-populations of cells in addition to the bulk leukaemia. We have previously demonstrated that the sub-population of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) cells, capable of serially engrafting NOD/SCID mice, have a CD34+/CD19 or CD34+/CD7 phenotype in B cell precursor (BCP) ALL and T-ALL, respectively. In this investigation we have compared the efficacy of a current glucocorticoid therapeutic agent on these putative ALL stem cells with their effects on the bulk leukaemia population. The effect of dexamethasone (dex), a key component of the treatment of childhood ALL, on primary ALL cells from 13 paediatric cases was examined. Unsorted ALL cells were co-cultured with and without dex for 48 hours. Subsequently, cell viability and apoptosis were evaluated by flow cytometry using propidium iodide and annexin V staining, with Flow-Count fluorospheres to directly determine absolute cell counts. Primary cells from 11 patients with BCP ALL were sorted for expression of CD34/CD19 and cells from 2 T-ALL cases were sorted for expression of CD34/CD7. The unsorted cells and the sorted sub-fractions were co-cultured with increasing concentrations of dex (0.05 to 500 μM) to compare the relative chemosensitivity of the bulk and putative leukaemia stem cell populations. The unsorted leukaemia populations were completely refractory to dex with no significant difference in the levels of apoptosis observed or the absolute number of viable cells in the treated samples and in the untreated controls. Interestingly, when the sorted populations were assessed, an increase in the absolute numbers of viable CD34+/CD19 (1.2–9.7 fold, P<0.02) and CD34+/CD7 (2.6–5 fold, P<0.04) leukaemia cells were observed even at the highest steroid dose, compared to the respective untreated sub-fractions. The other leukaemic sub-fractions did not show a significant increase in the number of viable cells following dex exposure. These data show that 10 out of 11 drug treated primary leukaemia cells were resistant to dex. The putative CD34+/CD19 BCP ALL cells and CD34+/CD7 T-ALL cells showed a significantly enhanced proliferative potential when exposed to the drug, suggesting that it is these cells that may be responsible for disease relapse.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.