Clinical drug resistance may be attributed to the simultaneous selection and expression of genes modulating the uptake and metabolism of chemotherapeutic agents. P-glycoprotein (P-gp) functions as a membrane-associated drug efflux pump whose increased expression results in resistance to anthracyclines, epipodophyllotoxins, vinca alkaloids, and some alkylating agents. This type of resistance occurs as both de novo and acquired resistance to therapy for leukemia. We have studied P- gp expression and function in childhood acute leukemias by developing a series of doxorubicin- and vincristine-selected CEM, T-cell lymphoblastoid cell lines that recapitulate the low levels of expression and resistance seen clinically. These cell lines have been used to develop flow cytometric assays for the semiquantitative measurements of P-gp expression with the MRK16 monoclonal antibody and P-gp function using the enhanced retention of rhodamine 123 in the presence of verapamil, a resistance modulator. Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistics, represented by the D measurement, are used to determine the difference in level of P-gp expression by comparing MRK16 staining to an IgG2a isotype control. When D is > 0.09, there is an excellent correlation (R = 0.82) between P-gp expression and function. The evaluation of 107 bone marrow specimens from 84 children with lymphoblastic or myelogenous leukemia showed a statistically significant (P = .004) increase in P-gp function at relapse. P-gp expression at relapse, however, approached but did not reach a significant level (P = .097). Using this methodology, we can identify patients with levels of P-gp expression and function that we can define clinically, as well as children with discordant multidrug resistance phenotypes. This study supports the role of P-gp-mediated drug resistance in childhood leukemia and confirms that P-gp expression and function are measurable in their leukemic blasts. These assays provide the means for the in vitro testing of resistance modulators and the monitoring of in vivo response to treatment with these agents.

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