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From an old remedy to a magic bullet: molecular mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of arsenic in fighting leukemia.


Adult, Animals, Arsenic, pharmacology, therapeutic use, Humans, Leukemia, drug therapy, genetics, Magic, Medicine, Traditional, methods, trends, Models, Biological, Models, Molecular, Signal Transduction, drug effects, Treatment Outcome

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      Arsenic had been used in treating malignancies from the 18th to mid-20th century. In the past 3 decades, arsenic was revived and shown to be able to induce complete remission and to achieve, when combined with all-trans retinoic acid and chemotherapy, a 5-year overall survival of 90% in patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia driven by the t(15;17) translocation-generated promyelocytic leukemia-retinoic acid receptor α (PML-RARα) fusion. Molecularly, arsenic binds thiol residues and induces the formation of reactive oxygen species, thus affecting numerous signaling pathways. Interestingly, arsenic directly binds the C3HC4 zinc finger motif in the RBCC domain of PML and PML-RARα, induces their homodimerization and multimerization, and enhances their interaction with the SUMO E2 conjugase Ubc9, facilitating subsequent sumoylation/ubiquitination and proteasomal degradation. Arsenic-caused intermolecular disulfide formation in PML also contributes to PML-multimerization. All-trans retinoic acid, which targets PML-RARα for degradation through its RARα moiety, synergizes with arsenic in eliminating leukemia-initiating cells. Arsenic perturbs a number of proteins involved in other hematologic malignancies, including chronic myeloid leukemia and adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma, whereby it may bring new therapeutic benefits. The successful revival of arsenic in acute promyelocytic leukemia, together with modern mechanistic studies, has thus allowed a new paradigm to emerge in translational medicine.

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