Recent studies have shown that a high proportion of patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) achieve complete remission after treatment with all-trans retinoic acid (RA). Nevertheless, despite an initial good response, most patients that received continuous treatment with all-trans RA relapse and develop RA-resistant disease. The 9-cis RA is a high-affinity ligand for retinoid X receptors (RXRs) and also binds efficiently to retinoic acid receptors (RARs); all-trans RA is a ligand for RARs. Both alone are able to induce differentiation of wild-type HL- 60 cells. We found that neither all-trans RA nor 9-cis RA (< 2 x 10(-6) mol/L) induced differentiation of RA-resistant HL-60 cells into either mature granulocytes or monocytes. However, morphologic differentiation of the RA-resistant HL-60 cells was induced by 10(-6) mol/L all-trans RA combined with various concentrations (10(-12) to 10(-6) mol/L) of 9- cis RA. Electron microscopic examination also confirmed that the combination of both retinoids induced RA-resistant HL-60 cells to differentiate to mature granulocytes. Functional analysis of differentiation (NBT reduction activity) confirmed the necessity of both analogs to induce differentiation. Also, expression of myeloid- specific differentiation antigens (CD11b and CD14) as well as migration inhibitory factor-related protein (MRP)-8/14 mRNAs were upregulated only in the presence of both retinoids in a dose-dependent manner. In these conditions 3H-thymidine incorporation was inhibited and numbers of viable cells were decreased, suggesting that all-trans RA with 9-cis RA may inhibit cell growth and induce differentiation of RA-resistant HL-60 cells into mature granulocytes. These studies suggest that 9-cis RA in combination with all-trans RA is an effective inducer of RA- resistant HL-60 cells and may have implications for both the biology of retinoids and clinical treatment of RA-resistant acute myelogenous leukemia, including APL patients.

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