Applying Mathematical Models to Study the Role of the Immune System in Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia

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Although tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) such as imatinib have transformed chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) into a chronic condition, these therapies are not curative in the majority of cases. Most patients must continue TKI therapy indefinitely, a requirement that is both expensive and that compromises a patient's quality of life. While TKIs are known to reduce leukemic cells' proliferative capacity and to induce apoptosis, their effects on leukemic stem cells, the immune system, and the microenvironment are not fully understood. A more complete understanding of their global therapeutic effects would help us to identify any limitations of TKI monotherapy and to address these issues through novel combination therapies.

Mathematical models are a complementary tool to experimental and clinical data that can provide valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of TKI therapy. Previous modeling efforts have focused on CML patients who show biphasic and triphasic exponential declines in BCR-ABL ratio during therapy. However, our patient data indicates that many patients treated with TKIs show fluctuations in BCR-ABL ratio yet are able to achieve durable remissions. To investigate these fluctuations, we construct a mathematical model that integrates CML with a patient's autologous immune response to the disease. In our model, we define an immune window, which is an intermediate range of leukemic concentrations that lead to an effective immune response against CML. While small leukemic concentrations provide insufficient stimulus, large leukemic concentrations actively suppress a patient's immune system, thus limiting it's ability to respond. Our patient data and modeling results suggest that at diagnosis, a patient's high leukemic concentration is able to suppress their immune system. TKI therapy drives the leukemic population into the immune window, allowing the patient's immune cells to expand and eventually mount an efficient response against the residual CML. This response drives the leukemic population below the immune window, causing the immune population to contract and allowing the leukemia to partially recover. The leukemia eventually reenters the immune window, thus stimulating a sequence of weaker immune responses as the two populations approach equilibrium.

We hypothesize that a patient's autologous immune response to CML may explain the fluctuations in BCR-ABL ratio that are regularly seen during TKI therapy. These fluctuations may serve as a signature of a patient's individual immune response to CML. By applying our modeling framework to patient data, we are able to construct an immune profile that can then be used to propose patient-specific combination therapies aimed at further reducing a patient's leukemic burden. Our characterization of a patient's anti-leukemia immune response may be especially valuable in the study of drug resistance, treatment cessation, and combination therapy.