The PML-RARα protein functions differently than the protein products of the normal PML and RARA genes. The protein produced from the RARA gene, RARα, is involved in the regulation of gene transcription, which is the first step in protein production. Specifically, this protein helps control the transcription of certain genes important in the maturation (differentiation) of white blood cells beyond the promyelocyte stage. The protein produced from the PML gene acts as a tumor suppressor, which means it prevents cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. The PML-RARα protein interferes with the normal function of both the PML and the RARα proteins. As a result, blood cells are stuck at the promyelocyte stage, and they proliferate abnormally. Excess promyelocytes accumulate in the bone marrow and normal white blood cells cannot form, leading to acute promyelocytic leukemia.
The PML-RARA gene fusion accounts for up to 98 percent of cases of acute promyelocytic leukemia. Translocations involving the RARA gene and other genes have been identified in a few cases of acute promyelocytic leukemia.