The high sensitivity of hematopoietic cells, especially stem cells, to radiation and to pro-oxidative and other leukemogenic agents is related to certain of their morphological and metabolic features. It is attributable to the low (minimal) number of active mitochondria and the consequently slow utilization of O 2 entering the cell. This results in an increased intracellular partial pressure of O 2 (pO 2) and increased levels of reactive oxygen (ROS) and nitrogen (RNS) species, and a Δ(PO – AO) imbalance between the pro-oxidative (PO) and antioxidative (AO) constituents.
Because excessive O 2 is toxic, we suggest that hematopoietic cells exist in a kind of unstable dynamic balance. This suggestion is based on the idea that mitochondria not only consume O 2 in the process of ATP production but also constitute the main anti-oxygenic stage in the cell's protective antioxidative system. Variations in the mitochondrial base capacity (quantity and quality of mitochondria) constitute an important and highly efficient channel for regulating the oxidative stress level within a cell.
The primary target for leukemogenic agents is the few mitochondria within the hematopoietic stem cell. Disturbance and weakening of their respiratory function further enhances the initial pro-oxidative state of the cell. This readily results in peroxygenation stress, creating the necessary condition for inducing leukemogenesis. We propose that this is the main cause of all related genetic and other disorders in the cell. ROS, RNS and peroxides act as signal molecules affecting redox-sensitive transcription factors, enzymes, oncogenes and other effectors. Thereby, they influence the expression and suppression of many genes, as well as the course and direction of proliferation, differentiation, leukemogenesis and apoptosis.
Differentiation of leukemic cells is blocked at the precursor stage. While the transformation of non-hematopoietic cells into tumor cells starts during proliferation, hematopoietic cells become leukemic at one of the interim stages in differentiation, and differentiation does not continue beyond that point. Proliferation is switched to differentiation and back according to a trigger principle, again involving ROS and RNS. When the leukemogenic Δ L(PO – AO) imbalance decreases in an under-differentiated leukemia cell to the differentiation level Δ D(PO – AO), the cell may continue to differentiate to the terminal stage.
The argument described in this article is used to explain the causes of congenital and children's leukemia, and the induction of leukemia by certain agents (vitamin K3, benzene, etc.). Specific research is required to validate the proposals made in this article. This will require accurate and accessible methods for measuring and assessing oxidative stress in different types of cells in general, and in hematopoietic cells in particular, in their different functional states.