Acute myeloid leukemia is characterized by arrested differentiation, and agents that overcome this block are therapeutically useful, as shown by the efficacy of all-trans retinoic acid in acute promyelocytic leukemia. However, the early promise of differentiation therapy did not translate into clinical benefit for other subtypes of acute myeloid leukemia, in which cytotoxic chemotherapeutic regimens remained the standard of care. Recent advances, including insights from sequencing of acute myeloid leukemia genomes, have led to the development of targeted therapies, comprising agents that induce differentiation of leukemic cells in preclinical models and clinical trials, thus rejuvenating interest in differentiation therapy. These agents act on various cellular processes including dysregulated metabolic programs, signaling pathways, epigenetic machinery and the cell cycle. In particular, inhibitors of mutant IDH1/2 and FLT3 have shown clinical benefit, leading to approval by regulatory bodies of their use. Besides the focus on recently approved differentiation therapies, this review also provides an overview of differentiation- inducing agents being tested in clinical trials or investigated in preclinical research. Combinatorial strategies are currently being tested for several agents (inhibitors of KDM1A, DOT1L, BET proteins, histone deacetylases), which were not effective in clinical studies as single agents, despite encouraging anti-leukemic activity observed in preclinical models. Overall, recently approved drugs and new investigational agents being developed highlight the merits of differentiation therapy; and ongoing studies promise further advances in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia in the near future.
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