All-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) induces leukemic cell differentiation and complete remission (CR) in a high proportion of patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (AML3 subtype). However, relapses occur when ATRA is prescribed as maintenance therapy, and resistance to a second ATRA-induction therapy is frequently observed. An induced hypercatabolism of ATRA has been suggested as a possible mechanism leading to reduced ATRA sensitivity and resistance. CRABPII, an RA cytoplasmic binding protein linked to RA's metabolization pathway, is induced by ATRA in different cell systems. To investigate whether specific features of the AML3 cells at relapse could explain the in vivo resistance observed, we studied the CRABP levels and in vitro sensitivity to ATRA of AML3 cells before and at relapse from ATRA. Relapse-AML3 cells (n = 12) showed reduced differentiation induction when compared with “virgin”-AML3 cells (n = 31; P < .05). Dose-response studies were performed in 2 cases at relapse and showed decreased sensitivity to low ATRA concentrations. CRABPII levels and in vitro differentiation characteristics of AML3 cells before and at relapse from ATRA therapy were studied concomittantly in 4 patients. High levels of CRABPII (median, 20 fmol/mg of protein) were detected in the cells of the 4 patients at relapse but were not detected before ATRA therapy. Three of these patients showed a decrease in differentiation induction of their leukemic cells, and a failure to achieve CR with a second induction therapy of ATRA 45 mg/m2/day was noted in all patients treated (n = 3). Results from this study provide evidence to support the hypothesis of induced-ATRA metabolism as one of the major mechanisms responsible for ATRA resistance. Monitoring CRABPII levels after ATRA withdrawal may help to determine when to administer ATRA in the maintenance or relapse therapy of AML3 patients.

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