Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a slowly progressing blood cancer that primarily affects elderly people. Without successful treatment, CML progressively develops from the chronic phase through the accelerated phase to the blast crisis, and ultimately to death. Nowadays, the availability of targeted tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) therapies has led to long-term disease control for the vast majority of patients. Nevertheless, there are still patients that do not respond well enough to TKI therapies and available targeted therapies are also less efficient for patients in accelerated phase or blast crises. Thus, a more detailed characterization of molecular alterations that distinguish the different CML phases is still very important. We performed an in-depth bioinformatics analysis of publicly available gene expression profiles of the three CML phases. Pairwise comparisons revealed many differentially expressed genes that formed a characteristic gene expression signature, which clearly distinguished the three CML phases. Signaling pathway expression patterns were very similar between the three phases but differed strongly in the number of affected genes, which increased with the phase. Still, significant alterations of MAPK, VEGF, PI3K-Akt, adherens junction and cytokine receptor interaction signaling distinguished specific phases. Our study also suggests that one can consider the phase-wise CML development as a three rather than a two-step process. This is in accordance with the phase-specific expression behavior of 24 potential major regulators that we predicted by a network-based approach. Several of these genes are known to be involved in the accumulation of additional mutations, alterations of immune responses, deregulation of signaling pathways or may have an impact on treatment response and survival. Importantly, some of these genes have already been reported in relation to CML (e.g., AURKB, AZU1, HLA-B, HLA-DMB, PF4) and others have been found to play important roles in different leukemias (e.g., CDCA3, RPL18A, PRG3, TLX3). In addition, increased expression of BCL2 in the accelerated and blast phase indicates that venetoclax could be a potential treatment option. Moreover, a characteristic signaling pathway signature with increased expression of cytokine and ECM receptor interaction pathway genes distinguished imatinib-resistant patients from each individual CML phase. Overall, our comparative analysis contributes to an in-depth molecular characterization of similarities and differences of the CML phases and provides hints for the identification of patients that may not profit from an imatinib therapy, which could support the development of additional treatment strategies.
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