The hallmarks of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) include the Philadelphia chromosome (Ph) translocation [t (9;22)(q34;q11)] and consistent molecular genetic aberrations: a break within a restricted 5.8 kb DNA segment, bcr, on chromosome 22q11; transposition of the c- abl protooncogene from chromosome 9q34 to 22q11; and formation of a hybrid bar-abl gene encoding an abnormal 210 Kd bcr-abl protein with augmented tyrosine kinase enzymatic activity. These molecular phenomena may occur even in the absence of cytogenetic evidence of the Ph translocation. They are highly specific and sensitive markers for CML, and are presumed to play a significant role in the pathogenesis of this malignancy. Surprisingly, we have encountered 11 patients who lacked the Ph translocation, bcr rearrangement, and (in the four patients with available mRNA) a bcr-abl message, and yet had a disease phenotype at diagnosis that was a morphologic facsimile of classic chronic phase CML. These patients presented with high white blood cell counts, neutrophilia, occasional basophilia, splenomegaly, and a hypercellular bone marrow with granulocytic hyperplasia and a left shift in myeloid maturation. Despite the striking resemblance between the early stages of bcr-negative and bcr-positive CML, disease progression manifests distinctly in these two disorders. In contrast to the blastic transformation that inevitably complicates bcr-positive CML, the natural history of our 11 Ph-negative, bcr-negative CML patients was characterized by increasing leukemia burden with leukocytosis, pronounced organomegaly, extramedullary infiltrates, and eventual bone marrow failure (anemia and thrombocytopenia) without marked increases in blast cells. Our current observations suggest that a chronic myeloid leukemia process can develop without associated changes in the bcr or c- abl genes. Although the initial phase of this disease is indistinguishable from CML, the presence or absence of molecular markers may aid in the prediction of the clinical course of Ph-negative CML.

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