Morphologic assessment of residual leukemia in blood or bone marrow is often difficult and is relatively insensitive. Traditionally, a cutoff of 5% blasts in the bone marrow (detected by light microscopy) has been used to determine remission status. This corresponds to a level of 1 in 20 malignant cells. If one wishes to detect lower levels of leukemic cells in either blood or marrow, specialized techniques such as PCR assays, which determine unique Ig/TCR gene rearrangements, fusion transcripts produced by chromosome translocations, or flow cytometric assays, which detect leukemia-specific immunophenotypes, are required. With these techniques, detection of as few as 1 leukemia cell in 100,000 normal cells is possible, and MRD at the level of 1 in 10,000 cells can be detected routinely.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that end-induction MRD is an important, independent predictor of outcome in children and adolescents with ALL.[99,140,141,142] MRD response discriminates outcome in subsets of patients defined by age, leukocyte count, and cytogenetic abnormalities. Patients with higher levels of end-induction MRD have a poorer prognosis than those with lower or undetectable levels.[99,139,140,141,144] End-induction MRD is used by almost all groups as a factor determining the intensity of postinduction treatment, with patients found to have higher levels allocated to more intensive therapies. MRD levels at earlier (e.g., day 8 and day 15 of induction) and later time points (e.g., week 12 of therapy) also predict outcome.[99,139,141,143,144,145,146,147]
MRD measurements, in conjunction with other presenting features, have also been used to identify subsets of patients with an extremely low risk of relapse. The COG reported a very favorable prognosis (5-year EFS of 97% � 1%) for patients with B-precursor phenotype, NCI standard risk age/leukocyte count, CNS1 status, and favorable cytogenetic abnormalities (either high hyperdiploidy with favorable trisomies or the ETV6-RUNX1 fusion) who had less than 0.01% MRD levels at both day 8 (from peripheral blood) and end-induction (from bone marrow).
Although MRD is the most important prognostic factor in determining outcome, there are no data to conclusively show that modifying therapy based on MRD determination significantly improves outcome in newly diagnosed ALL.