New research suggests chemotherapy may contribute to relapse in some patients with acute myeloid leukemia.
Most patients with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) die from progressive disease after relapse, which is associated with clonal evolution at the cytogenetic level. To determine the mutational spectrum associated with relapse, we sequenced the primary tumour and relapse genomes from eight AML patients, and validated hundreds of somatic mutations using deep sequencing; this allowed us to define clonality and clonal evolution patterns precisely at relapse. In addition to discovering novel, recurrently mutated genes (for example, WAC, SMC3, DIS3, DDX41 and DAXX) in AML, we also found two major clonal evolution patterns during AML relapse: (1) the founding clone in the primary tumour gained mutations and evolved into the relapse clone, or (2) a subclone of the founding clone survived initial therapy, gained additional mutations and expanded at relapse. In all cases, chemotherapy failed to eradicate the founding clone. The comparison of relapse-specific versus primary tumour mutations in all eight cases revealed an increase in transversions, probably due to DNA damage caused by cytotoxic chemotherapy. These data demonstrate that AML relapse is associated with the addition of new mutations and clonal evolution, which is shaped, in part, by the chemotherapy that the patients receive to establish and maintain remissions.