Only some acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) cells are thought to be capable of proliferating to maintain the leukemic clone, and these cells may be the most relevant to target with treatment regimens. We have developed a serum-free suspension culture (SC) system that supported growth of B-ALL cells from 33 patients for up to 6 weeks. ALL cells from 28 cases (85%) were expanded in this system, and growth was superior in SC than in long-term bone marrow culture. To characterize ALL progenitors, cells were sorted for expression of CD34 and CD10 or CD19 and the subfractions assayed in SC and in nonobese diabetic/severe combined immunodeficient (NOD/SCID) mice. Cells capable of long-term proliferation in vitro and NOD/SCID repopulation were derived only from the CD34+/CD10- and CD34+/CD19- subfractions, and these cells could engraft secondary recipients. The engrafted cells had the same immunophenotype and karyotype as was seen at diagnosis, suggesting they had differentiated in vivo. These results demonstrate that ALL cells capable of long-term proliferation in vitro and in vivo are CD34+/CD10-/CD19-. This suggests that cells with a more immature phenotype, rather than committed B-lymphoid cells, may be the targets for transformation in B-ALL.

  • Submitted March 10, 2004.
  • Accepted June 27, 2004.
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