Patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) associated with the t(15;17) translocation and fusion of the promyelocytic leukemia (PML) and retinoic acid receptor-alpha (RAR-alpha) genes achieve complete remission but not cure with all-trans retinoic acid (RA), NB4, a cell line derived from a patient with t(15;17) APL that undergoes granulocytic differentiation when treated with pharmacologic doses of RA, was used as a model for differentiation therapy of APL. We found that NB4 cells are resistant to differentiation by nonretinoid inducers such as hexamethylene bisacetamide (HMBA), butyrates, vitamin D3, or hypoxanthine, all of which can induce differentiation in the commonly used HL60 leukemia cell line. Preexposure of NB4 cells to low concentrations of RA for a period as short as 30 minutes abolished resistance to nonretinoids and potentiated differentiation. Sequential RA and HMBA treatment yielded maximal differentiation by 3 days of drug exposure, whereas the effect of RA alone peaked after 6 days and yielded a smaller percentage of differentiated cells. RA also reversed NB4 cell resistance to butyrates and allowed for synergistic differentiation by these agents. Pretreatment with HMBA before exposure to RA failed to stimulate differentiation. Sequential RA/HMBA treatment also markedly increased the extent of differentiation of primary cultures of bone marrow and peripheral blood mononuclear cells from three APL patients. In one case RA/HMBA treatment overcame resistance to RA in vitro. Together, these results suggest that intermittent low doses of RA followed by either HMBA or butyrates may be a useful combination in the treatment of APL. This clinical strategy may help prevent or overcome RA resistance in APL.

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