Many leukemias are characterized by well-known mutations that drive oncogenesis. Mice engineered with these mutations provide a foundation for understanding leukemogenesis and identifying therapies. However, data from whole genome studies provide evidence that malignancies are characterized by multiple genetic alterations that vary between patients, as well as inherited genetic variation that can also contribute to oncogenesis. Improved outcomes will require precision medicine approaches–targeted therapies tailored to malignancies in each patient. Preclinical models that reflect the range of mutations and the genetic background present in patient populations are required to develop and test the combinations of therapies that will be used to provide precision medicine therapeutic strategies. Patient-derived xenografts (PDX) produced by transplanting leukemia cells from patients into immune deficient mice provide preclinical models where disease mechanisms and therapeutic efficacy can be studied in vivo in context of the genetic variability present in patient tumors. PDX models are possible because many elements in the bone marrow microenvironment show cross-species activity between mice and humans. However, several cytokines likely to impact leukemia cells are species-specific with limited activity on transplanted human leukemia cells. In this review we discuss the importance of PDX models for developing precision medicine approaches to leukemia treatment. We illustrate how PDX models can be optimized to overcome a lack of cross-species cytokine activity by reviewing a recent strategy developed for use with a high-risk form of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) that is characterized by overexpression of CRLF2, a receptor component for the cytokine, TSLP.
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