Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) is a stem cell-derived hematopoietic neoplasm characterized by dysplasia, uncontrolled expansion of monocytic (progenitor) cells in the bone marrow (BM) and in the peripheral blood (PB), and an increased risk of progression to secondary acute myeloid leukemia (sAML). Patients with advanced CMML and sAML are often highly resistant to therapy and their prognosis is dismal. It is thought that drug resistance in myeloid malignancies is a quality of leukemia stem cells (LSC), but little is known about CMML-initiating and propagating LSC. We investigated the phenotype and functional behavior of putative CMML-initiating cells in 15 patients with CMML (7 females, 8 males; median age 73 years; range 45-82 years) and 6 with sAML following CMML (1 female, 5 males; median age 67.5 years; range 66-76 years). BM and/or PB samples were examined by multicolor flow cytometry using antibodies against CD34, CD38 and various additional surface markers and target antigens. In a subset of patients, putative stem and progenitor cells (CD34+ cells, CD34+/CD38 cells and CD34+/CD38+ cells) were FACS-sorted to high purity (>95%) and were employed in xenotransplantation experiments or in drug testing experiments. We found that CMML-initiating and propagating LSC reside within the CD34+/CD38 fraction of the malignant clone. Whereas highly purified CD34+ cells engrafted NOD.Cg-Prkdcscid Il2rgtm1Wjl Tg(CMV-IL3,CSF2,KITLG) 1Eav/MloySzJ (NSGS) mice with full-blown CMML (engraftment rate 44.8±26.0%), no CMML was produced by the bulk of CD34- monocytic cells (engraftment rate 0.8±0.5%; p=0.002). CMML engraftment was also detectable when transplanting unselected mononuclear cells (engraftment rate 19.7±10.9%). By contrast, no leukemic engraftment was produced by CD38+ CMML fractions (engraftment rate 0.1±0.1%; p=0.003), indicating that the NSGS-repopulating CMML LSC reside specifically in a CD34+/CD38- fraction of the clone. In sAML, both the CD34+/CD38- cell fraction (engraftment rate 92.2±6.2%) and the CD34+/CD38+ fraction (engraftment rate 80.5±7.2%) produced engraftment with AML blasts in NSGS mice. In a next step, we established the cell surface phenotype of CD34+/CD38- LSC in CMML and sAML. As assessed by multicolor flow cytometry, CD34+/CD38- CMML cells invariably expressed CD33/Siglec-3, CD117/KIT, CD123/IL3RA, CD133/AC133, CD135/FLT3, and IL-1RAP. In a subset of patients, CMML LSC also expressed CD52 (9/11 patients; 81%), CD114 (3/7 patients; 43%), CD184 (9/12 patients; 75%), CD221 (8/11 patients; 73%) and/or CLL-1 (7/13 patients; 54%). CMML LSC did not express CD25 or CD26. However, in patients with sAML, LSC also displayed CD25 (median fluorescence intensity, MFI: CMML: 0.9 vs. sAML: 23.0; p<0.001). Compared to hematopoietic stem cells in normal BM (NBM), CMML LSC displayed slightly increased levels of CD117/KIT (MFI CMML: 32.5 vs. MFI NBM: 15.0; p=0.019), CD135/FLT3 (MFI CMML: 1.9 vs. MFI NBM: 0.8; p=0.001), CD184/CXCR4 (MFI CMML: 1.6 vs. MFI NBM 0.9; p=0.027), and IL-1RAP (MFI CMML: 1.6 vs. MFI NBM: 0.8; p=0.004). No correlations between surface-marker expression on LSC and the type of CMML (CMML-0/1/2 or dysplastic vs. proliferative CMML) or the clinical course were found. To confirm the clinical relevance of expression of surface target antigens on CMML LSC, we applied the CD33-targeted drug gemtuzumab-ozogamicin (GO). As assessed by combined staining for LSC (CD34+/CD38-) and AnnexinV/DAPI, incubation of CMML LSC with GO (0.001-1 µg/ml) resulted in dose-dependent apoptosis in all donors tested, and the same result was obtained in the monoblastic cell lines THP-1 (GO at 1 µg/ml: 94.2±1.5% vs. control: 12.7±2.2%, p<0.05) and Mono-Mac-1 (GO at 1 µg/ml: 56.4±12.1% vs. control: 10.1±0.6% p<0.05). In conclusion, LSC in CMML and sAML reside within CD34+/CD38 cell populations that express distinct profiles of surface markers and target antigens. During progression of CMML into sAML, LSC apparently acquire CD25. Characterization of CMML LSC and LSC in sAML should facilitate their enrichment and the development of LSC-eradicating therapies.


Hoermann:Novartis: Honoraria; Roche: Honoraria. Sperr:Celgene: Consultancy, Honoraria; Novartis: Honoraria. Sill:Astex: Other: Advisory board; Novartis: Other: Advisory board; AbbVie: Other: Advisory board; Astellas: Other: Advisory board. Geissler:Novartis: Honoraria; AOP: Honoraria; Roche: Honoraria; Amgen: Honoraria; AstraZeneca: Honoraria; Ratiopharm: Honoraria; Celgene: Honoraria; Abbvie: Honoraria; Pfizer: Honoraria. Deininger:Blueprint: Consultancy, Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Pfizer: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Ascentage Pharma: Consultancy, Honoraria; Fusion Pharma: Consultancy; TRM: Consultancy; Sangoma: Consultancy; Adelphi: Consultancy; Takeda: Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Humana: Honoraria; Incyte: Honoraria; Novartis: Honoraria; Sangamo: Consultancy. Valent:Pfizer: Honoraria; Blueprint: Research Funding; Novartis: Consultancy, Honoraria, Research Funding; Celgene: Honoraria; Deciphera: Honoraria, Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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