Despite a high rate of complete remission after treatment with conventional genotoxic agents, the overall survival of patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is poor due to frequent relapses caused by the chemoresistance of rare leukemic stem cells (LSCs, also called Scid-Leukemia Initiating Cells). This unfavorable situation leads to a strong need to characterize those cells in order to target them with new specific therapies. Using a robust immunodeficient mouse model (NOD/LtSz-scid IL2Rγchainnull or NSG), we have previously shown that these LSCs were rare and not restricted to the CD34+CD38- immature compartment. This phenotypical heterogeneity of LSCs suggests that pharmacological targeting of LSC will not work if solely based on their cell surface markers. A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the in vivo chemoresistance is required for the development of innovative targeted therapies. Aracytine (Ara-C, a pyrimidine analog), the most clinically used chemotherapeutic agents for AML patients, inhibits DNA synthesis and, therefore, targets and kills cycling AML cells in S phase of the cell cycle. Based on this mechanism of action, we hypothesized that Ara-C treatment will spare and enrich quiescent LSCs in vivo.

We analyzed the response to Ara-C and residual disease in NSG mice engrafted with primary AML cells from 13 patients in two clinical centers (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA and Purpan Hospital, Toulouse, France). A sub-lethal treatment of 60 mg/kg Ara-C given daily for five days induced a 5- to 50- fold reduction of peripheral blood blasts and total tumor burden in spleen and bone marrow in all patients tested. For 5 patients, we observed relapse within 4 to 6 weeks post-chemotherapy. Surprisingly, residual viable cells after Ara-C treatment showed no significant enrichment in quiescent cells and CD34+CD38- cells for the majority of primary samples tested (12 and 10 out of 13 total tested, respectively). Of note, the largest fraction (70-90%) of leukemic cells is in G0/G1 phase (including 0.5-20% in G0) in untreated engrafted mice. Moreover, we observed no significant changes in cell cycle profile of residual leukemic cells during the time course of the disease progression for 3 out of 4 patients. Finally, we assessed the frequency of LSCs in Ara-C-treated and control mice using transplantation and limiting dilution analysis in secondary recipients. Interestingly, we observed that Ara-C treatment did not increase the frequency of SL-ICs in residual cells, suggesting that blasts and LSC were equally sensitive to Ara-C in vivo.

Our results show that sub-lethal regimen of Ara-C does not lead to enrichment of LSCs and induces cell death of both leukemic bulk and stem/progenitor cells independently of their cell cycle status probably through another in vivo mechanism such as apoptosis, autophagy or necroptosis. This study also suggests that further characterization of chemoresistant leukemic cells beyond phenotype and cell cycle status must rely on more functional properties in order to better elucidate the molecular basis of resistance in AML.


Perry:MERCK: Employment. Carroll:Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Research Funding. Sarry:AFFICHEM SA: Membership on an entity’s Board of Directors or advisory committees.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.