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Acute myeloid leukemia

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Title: Acute myeloid leukemia  
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Subject: Leukemia, Acute myeloblastic leukemia with maturation, Outline of immunology, Chemotherapy regimen, Shannon Tavarez
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Acute myeloid leukemia

Acute myeloid leukemia
Classification and external resources
Bone marrow aspirate showing acute myeloid leukemia. Arrows indicate Auer rods.
ICD-10 C92.0
ICD-9 205.0
ICD-O: M9861/3
OMIM 602439
DiseasesDB 203
MedlinePlus 000542
eMedicine med/34
MeSH D015470

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), also known as acute myelogenous leukemia or acute nonlymphocytic leukemia (ANLL), is a cancer of the myeloid line of blood cells, characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells. AML is the most common acute leukemia affecting adults, and its incidence increases with age. Although AML is a relatively rare disease, accounting for approximately 1.2% of cancer deaths in the United States,[1] its incidence is expected to increase as the population ages.

The symptoms of AML are caused by replacement of normal bone marrow with leukemic cells, which causes a drop in red blood cells, platelets, and normal white blood cells. These symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, easy bruising and bleeding, and increased risk of infection. Several risk factors and chromosomal abnormalities have been identified, but the specific cause is not clear. As an acute leukemia, AML progresses rapidly and is typically fatal within weeks or months if left untreated.

AML has several subtypes; treatment and prognosis varies among subtypes. Five-year survival varies from 15–70%, and relapse rate varies from 33–78%, depending on subtype. AML is treated initially with chemotherapy aimed at inducing a remission; patients may go on to receive additional chemotherapy or a hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Recent research into the genetics of AML has resulted in the availability of tests that can predict which drug or drugs may work best for a particular patient, as well as how long that patient is likely to survive.

Signs and symptoms

Diffusely swollen gums due to infiltration by leukemic cells in a person with acute myelomonocytic leukemia

Most signs and symptoms of AML are caused by the replacement of normal blood cells with leukemic cells. A lack of normal white blood cell production makes the patient susceptible to infections; while the leukemic cells themselves are derived from white blood cell precursors, they have no infection-fighting capacity.[2] A drop in red blood cell count (anemia) can cause fatigue, paleness, and shortness of breath. A lack of platelets can lead to easy bruising or bleeding with minor trauma.

The early signs of AML are often vague and nonspecific, and may be similar to those of influenza or other common illnesses. Some generalized symptoms include fever, fatigue, weight loss or loss of appetite, shortness of breath, anemia, easy bruising or bleeding, petechiae (flat, pin-head sized spots under the skin caused by bleeding), bone and joint pain, and persistent or frequent infections.[2]

Enlargement of the spleen may occur in AML, but it is typically mild and asymptomatic. Lymph node swelling is rare in AML, in contrast to acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The skin is involved about 10% of the time in the form of leukemia cutis. Rarely, Sweet's syndrome, a paraneoplastic inflammation of the skin, can occur with AML.[2]

Some patients with AML may experience swelling of the gums because of infiltration of leukemic cells into the gum tissue. Rarely, the first sign of leukemia may be the development of a solid leukemic mass or tumor outside of the bone marrow, called a chloroma. Occasionally, a person may show no symptoms, and the leukemia may be discovered incidentally during a routine blood test.[3]


A number of risk factors for developing AML have been identified, including: other blood disorders, chemical exposures, ionizing radiation, and genetics.


"Preleukemic" blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndrome or myeloproliferative disease, can evolve into AML; the exact risk depends on the type of MDS/MPS.[4]

Chemical exposure

Exposure to anticancer chemotherapy, in particular alkylating agents, can increase the risk of subsequently developing AML. The risk is highest about three to five years after chemotherapy.[5] Other chemotherapy agents, specifically epipodophyllotoxins and anthracyclines, have also been associated with treatment-related leukemia. These treatment-related leukemias are often associated with specific chromosomal abnormalities in the leukemic cells.[6]

Occupational chemical exposure to solvents is controversial as a cause of AML. Benzene and many of its derivatives are known to be carcinogenic in vitro. While some studies have suggested a link between occupational exposure to benzene and increased risk of AML,[7] others have suggested the attributable risk, if any, is slight.[8]


High amounts of ionizing radiation exposure can increase the risk of AML. Survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an increased rate of AML,[9] as did radiologists exposed to high levels of X-rays prior to the adoption of modern radiation safety practices.[10]


A hereditary risk for AML appears to exist. Multiple cases of AML developing in a family at a rate higher than predicted by chance alone have been reported.[11][12][13][14] Several congenital conditions may increase the risk of leukemia; the most common is probably Down syndrome, which is associated with a 10- to 18-fold increase in the risk of AML.[15]


Bone marrow: myeloblasts with Auer rods seen in acute myeloid leukemia

The first clue to a diagnosis of AML is typically an abnormal result on a complete blood count. While an excess of abnormal white blood cells (leukocytosis) is a common finding, and leukemic blasts are sometimes seen, AML can also present with isolated decreases in platelets, red blood cells, or even with a low white blood cell count (leukopenia).[16] While a presumptive diagnosis of AML can be made via examination of the peripheral blood smear when there are circulating leukemic blasts, a definitive diagnosis usually requires an adequate bone marrow aspiration and biopsy.

Marrow or blood is examined via light microscopy, as well as flow cytometry, to diagnose the presence of leukemia, to differentiate AML from other types of leukemia (e.g. acute lymphoblastic leukemia - ALL), and to classify the subtype of disease (see below). A sample of marrow or blood is typically also tested for chromosomal abnormalities by routine cytogenetics or fluorescent in situ hybridization. Genetic studies may also be performed to look for specific mutations in genes such as FLT3, nucleophosmin, and KIT, which may influence the outcome of the disease.[17]

Cytochemical stains on blood and bone marrow smears are helpful in the distinction of AML from ALL, and in subclassification of AML. The combination of a myeloperoxidase or Sudan black stain and a nonspecific esterase stain will provide the desired information in most cases. The myeloperoxidase or Sudan black reactions are most useful in establishing the identity of AML and distinguishing it from ALL. The nonspecific esterase stain is used to identify a monocytic component in AMLs and to distinguish a poorly differentiated monoblastic leukemia from ALL.[18]

The diagnosis and classification of AML can be challenging, and should be performed by a qualified hematopathologist or hematologist. In straightforward cases, the presence of certain morphologic features (such as Auer rods) or specific flow cytometry results can distinguish AML from other leukemias; however, in the absence of such features, diagnosis may be more difficult.[19]

According to the widely used WHO criteria, the diagnosis of AML is established by demonstrating involvement of more than 20% of the blood and/or bone marrow by leukemic myeloblasts.[20] The French–American–British (FAB) classification is a bit more stringent, requiring a blast percentage of at least 30% in bone marrow (BM) or peripheral blood (PB) for the diagnosis of AML.[21] AML must be carefully differentiated from "preleukemic" conditions such as myelodysplastic or myeloproliferative syndromes, which are treated differently.

Because acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) has the highest curability and requires a unique form of treatment, it is important to quickly establish or exclude the diagnosis of this subtype of leukemia. Fluorescent in situ hybridization performed on blood or bone marrow is often used for this purpose, as it readily identifies the chromosomal translocation [t(15;17)(q22;q12);] that characterizes APL. There is also a need to molecularly detect the presence of PML/RARA fusion protein, which is an oncogenic product of that translocation. [22]

The two most commonly used classification schemata for AML are the older French-American-British (FAB) system and the newer World Health Organization (WHO) system.

World Health Organization

The hematopathologist and oncologist; however, most of the clinically significant information in the WHO schema is communicated via categorization into one of the subtypes listed below.

The WHO subtypes of AML are:[23]

Name Description ICD-O
Acute myeloid leukemia with recurrent genetic abnormalities Includes: Multiple
AML with myelodysplasia-related changes This category includes patients who have had a prior documented myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) or myeloproliferative disease (MPD) that then has transformed into AML, or who have cytogenetic abnormalities characteristic for this type of AML (with previous history of MDS or MPD that has gone unnoticed in the past, but the cytogenetics is still suggestive of MDS/MPD history). This category of AML occurs most often in elderly patients and often has a worse prognosis. Includes:
  • AML with complex karyotype
  • Unbalanced abnormalities
  • Balanced abnormalities
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 11 and 16 - [t(11;16)(q23;q13.3);], unrelated to previous chemotherapy or ionizing radiation
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 3 and 21 - [t(3;21)(q26.2;q22.1);], unrelated to previous chemotherapy or ionizing radiation
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 1 and 3 - [t(1;3)(p36.3;q21.1);]
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 2 and 11 - [t(2;11)(p21;q23);], unrelated to previous chemotherapy or ionizing radiation
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 5 and 12 - [t(5;12)(q33;p12);]
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 5 and 7 - [t(5;7)(q33;q11.2);]
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 5 and 17 - [t(5;17)(q33;p13);]
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 5 and 10 - [t(5;10)(q33;q21);]
    • AML with translocations between chromosome 3 and 5 - [t(3;5)(q25;q34);]
Therapy-related myeloid neoplasms This category includes patients who have had prior chemotherapy and/or radiation and subsequently develop AML or MDS. These leukemias may be characterized by specific chromosomal abnormalities, and often carry a worse prognosis. M9920/3
Myeloid sarcoma This category includes myeloid sarcoma.
Myeloid proliferations related to Down syndrome This category includes so-called "transient abnormal myelopoiesis" and "Myeloid leukemia associated with Down syndrome"
Blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm This category includes so-called "blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm"
AML not otherwise categorized Includes subtypes of AML that do not fall into the above categories M9861/3

Acute leukemias of ambiguous lineage (also known as mixed phenotype or biphenotypic acute leukemia) occur when the leukemic cells can not be classified as either myeloid or lymphoid cells, or where both types of cells are present.


The French-American-British (FAB) classification system divides AML into eight subtypes, M0 through to M7, based on the type of cell from which the leukemia developed and its degree of maturity. This is done by examining the appearance of the malignant cells with light microscopy and/or by using cytogenetics to characterize any underlying chromosomal abnormalities. The subtypes have varying prognoses and responses to therapy. Although the WHO classification (see above) may be more useful, the FAB system is still widely used.

Eight FAB subtypes were proposed in 1976.[24]

Type Name Cytogenetics Percentage of adult AML patients
M0 acute myeloblastic leukemia, minimally differentiated 5%[25]
M1 acute myeloblastic leukemia, without maturation 15%[25]
M2 acute myeloblastic leukemia, with granulocytic maturation t(8;21)(q22;q22), t(6;9) 25%[25]
M3 promyelocytic, or acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) t(15;17) 10%[25]
M4 acute myelomonocytic leukemia inv(16)(p13q22), del(16q) 20%[25]
M4eo myelomonocytic together with bone marrow eosinophilia inv(16), t(16;16) 5%[25]
M5 acute monoblastic leukemia (M5a) or acute monocytic leukemia (M5b) del (11q), t(9;11), t(11;19) 10%[25]
M6 acute erythroid leukemias, including erythroleukemia (M6a) and very rare pure erythroid leukemia (M6b) 5%[25]
M7 acute megakaryoblastic leukemia t(1;22) 5%[25]

The morphologic subtypes of AML also include rare types not included in the FAB system, such as acute basophilic leukemia, which was proposed as a ninth subtype, M8, in 1999.[26]


Diagram showing the cells where AML develops

The malignant cell in AML is the myeloblast. In normal hematopoiesis, the myeloblast is an immature precursor of myeloid white blood cells; a normal myeloblast will gradually mature into a mature white blood cell. In AML, though, a single myeloblast accumulates genetic changes which "freeze" the cell in its immature state and prevent differentiation.[27] Such a mutation alone does not cause leukemia; however, when such a "differentiation arrest" is combined with other mutations which disrupt genes controlling proliferation, the result is the uncontrolled growth of an immature clone of cells, leading to the clinical entity of AML.[28]

Much of the diversity and heterogeneity of AML stems is because leukemic transformation can occur at a number of different steps along the differentiation pathway.[29] Modern classification schemes for AML recognize the characteristics and behavior of the leukemic cell (and the leukemia) may depend on the stage at which differentiation was halted.

Specific cytogenetic abnormalities can be found in many patients with AML; the types of chromosomal abnormalities often have prognostic significance.[30] The chromosomal translocations encode abnormal fusion proteins, usually transcription factors whose altered properties may cause the "differentiation arrest".[31] For example, in acute promyelocytic leukemia, the t(15;17) translocation produces a PML-RARα fusion protein which binds to the retinoic acid receptor element in the promoters of several myeloid-specific genes and inhibits myeloid differentiation.[32]

The clinical signs and symptoms of AML result from the growth of leukemic clone cells, which tends to displace or interfere with the development of normal blood cells in the bone marrow.[33] This leads to neutropenia, anemia, and thrombocytopenia. The symptoms of AML are, in turn, often due to the low numbers of these normal blood elements. In rare cases, patients can develop a chloroma, or solid tumor of leukemic cells outside the bone marrow, which can cause various symptoms depending on its location.[2]


First-line treatment of AML consists primarily of chemotherapy, and is divided into two phases: induction and postremission (or consolidation) therapy. The goal of induction therapy is to achieve a complete remission by reducing the number of leukemic cells to an undetectable level; the goal of consolidation therapy is to eliminate any residual undetectable disease and achieve a cure.[34] Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is usually considered if induction chemotherapy fails or after a patient relapses, although transplantation is also sometimes used as front-line therapy for patients with high-risk disease.


All FAB subtypes except M3 are usually given induction chemotherapy with cytarabine (ara-C) and an anthracycline (most often daunorubicin).[35] This induction chemotherapy regimen is known as "7+3" (or "3+7"), because the cytarabine is given as a continuous IV infusion for seven consecutive days while the anthracycline is given for three consecutive days as an IV push. Up to 70% of patients will achieve a remission with this protocol.[36] Other alternative induction regimens, including high-dose cytarabine alone, FLAG-like regimens or investigational agents, may also be used.[37][38] Because of the toxic effects of therapy, including myelosuppression and an increased risk of infection, induction chemotherapy may not be offered to the very elderly, and the options may include less intense chemotherapy or palliative care.

The M3 subtype of AML, also known as acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), is almost universally treated with the drug all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) in addition to induction chemotherapy, usually an anthracycline.[39][40][41] Care must be taken to prevent disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), complicating the treatment of APL when the promyelocytes release the contents of their granules into the peripheral circulation. APL is eminently curable, with well-documented treatment protocols.

The goal of the induction phase is to reach a complete remission. Complete remission does not mean the disease has been cured; rather, it signifies no disease can be detected with available diagnostic methods.[35] Complete remission is obtained in about 50%–75% of newly diagnosed adults, although this may vary based on the prognostic factors described above.[42] The length of remission depends on the prognostic features of the original leukemia. In general, all remissions will fail without additional consolidation therapy.[43]


Even after complete remission is achieved, leukemic cells likely remain in numbers too small to be detected with current diagnostic techniques. If no further postremission or consolidation therapy is given, almost all patients will eventually relapse.[44] Therefore, more therapy is necessary to eliminate nondetectable disease and prevent relapse — that is, to achieve a cure.

The specific type of postremission therapy is individualized based on a patient's prognostic factors (see above) and general health. For good-prognosis leukemias (i.e. inv(16), t(8;21), and t(15;17)), patients will typically undergo an additional three to five courses of intensive chemotherapy, known as consolidation chemotherapy.[45][46] For patients at high risk of relapse (e.g. those with high-risk cytogenetics, underlying MDS, or therapy-related AML), allogeneic stem cell transplantation is usually recommended if the patient is able to tolerate a transplant and has a suitable donor. The best postremission therapy for intermediate-risk AML (normal cytogenetics or cytogenetic changes not falling into good-risk or high-risk groups) is less clear and depends on the specific situation, including the age and overall health of the patient, the patient's personal values, and whether a suitable stem cell donor is available.[46]

For patients who are not eligible for a stem cell transplant, immunotherapy with a combination of histamine dihydrochloride (Ceplene) and interleukin 2 (Proleukin) after the completion of consolidation has been shown to reduce the absolute relapse risk by 14%, translating to a 50% increase in the likelihood of maintained remission.[47]

Relapsed AML

For patients with relapsed AML, the only proven potentially curative therapy is a hematopoietic stem cell transplant, if one has not already been performed.[48][49][50] In 2000, the monoclonal antibody-linked cytotoxic agent gemtuzumab ozogamicin (Mylotarg) was approved in the United States for patients aged more than 60 years with relapsed AML who are not candidates for high-dose chemotherapy.[51] This drug was voluntarily withdrawn from the market by its manufacturer, Pfizer in 2010.[52]

Since treatment options for relapsed AML are so limited, palliative care may be offered.

Clinical trials

Patients with relapsed AML who are not candidates for stem cell transplantion, or who have relapsed after a stem cell transplant, may be offered treatment in a clinical trial, as conventional treatment options are limited. Agents under investigation include cytotoxic drugs such as clofarabine, as well as targeted therapies, such as farnesyl transferase inhibitors, decitabine, and inhibitors of MDR1 (multidrug-resistance protein).

Relapsed APL

For relapsed acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), arsenic trioxide has been tested in trials and approved by the US FDA. Like ATRA, arsenic trioxide does not work with other subtypes of AML.[53]


Chromosomal translocation (9;11), associated with AML

Acute myeloid leukemia is a curable disease; the chance of cure for a specific patient depends on a number of prognostic factors.[54]


The single most important prognostic factor in AML is cytogenetics, or the chromosomal structure of the leukemic cell. Certain cytogenetic abnormalities are associated with very good outcomes (for example, the (15;17) translocation in acute promyelocytic leukemia). About half of AML patients have "normal" cytogenetics; they fall into an intermediate risk group. A number of other cytogenetic abnormalities are known to associate with a poor prognosis and a high risk of relapse after treatment.[55][56][57]

The first publication to address cytogenetics and prognosis was the MRC trial of 1998:[58]
Risk Category Abnormality 5-year survival Relapse rate
Good t(8;21), t(15;17), inv(16) 70% 33%
Intermediate Normal, +8, +21, +22, del(7q), del(9q), Abnormal 11q23, all other structural or numerical changes 48% 50%
Poor -5, -7, del(5q), Abnormal 3q, Complex cytogenetics 15% 78%

Later, the Southwest Oncology Group and Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group[59] and, later still, Cancer and Leukemia Group B published other, mostly overlapping lists of cytogenetics prognostication in leukemia.[60]

Myelodysplastic syndrome

AML which arises from a pre-existing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) or myeloproliferative disease (so-called secondary AML) has a worse prognosis, as does treatment-related AML arising after chemotherapy for another previous malignancy. Both of these entities are associated with a high rate of unfavorable cytogenetic abnormalities.[61][62][63]

Other prognostic markers

In some studies, age >60 years and elevated lactate dehydrogenase level were also associated with poorer outcomes.[64] As with most forms of cancer, performance status (i.e. the general physical condition and activity level of the patient) plays a major role in prognosis as well.


FLT3 internal tandem duplications (ITDs) have been shown to confer a poorer prognosis in AML.[65] Treating these patients with more aggressive therapy, such as stem-cell transplantation in first remission, has not been shown to enhance long-term survival. ITDs of FLT3 may be associated with leukostasis.[66] In 2012 FLT3 inhibitor quizartinib had good phase II trial results in AML patients with FLT3-ITD mutations.

Researchers are investigating the clinical significance of c-KIT mutations in AML.[67] These are prevalent, and clinically relevant because of the availability of tyrosine kinase inhibitors, such as imatinib and sunitinib that can block the activity of c-KIT pharmacologically.

Other genes being investigated as prognostic factors or therapeutic targets include CEBPA, BAALC, ERG, and NPM1.

Expectation of cure

Expected survival upon diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia in the United States

Cure rates in clinical trials have ranged from 20–45%;[68][69] although clinical trials often include only younger patients and those able to tolerate aggressive therapies. The overall cure rate for all patients with AML (including the elderly and those unable to tolerate aggressive therapy) is likely lower. Cure rates for promyelocytic leukemia can be as high as 98%.[70]


Acute myeloid leukemia is a relatively rare cancer. There are approximately 10,500 new cases each year in the United States, and the incidence rate has remained stable from 1995 through 2005. AML accounts for 1.2% of all cancer deaths in the United States.[1]

The incidence of AML increases with age; the median age at diagnosis is 63 years. AML accounts for about 90% of all acute leukemias in adults, but is rare in children.[1] The rate of therapy-related AML (that is, AML caused by previous chemotherapy) is rising; therapy-related disease currently accounts for about 10–20% of all cases of AML.[71] AML is slightly more common in men, with a male-to-female ratio of 1.3:1.[72]

There is some geographic variation in the incidence of AML. In adults, the highest rates are seen in North America, Europe, and Oceania, while adult AML is rarer in Asia and Latin America.[73][74] In contrast, childhood AML is less common in North America and India than in other parts of Asia.[75] These differences may be due to population genetics, environmental factors, or a combination of the two.


AML accounts for 34% of all leukaemia cases in the UK, and around 2,900 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2011.[76]


Alfred Velpeau

The first published description of a case of leukemia in medical literature dates to 1827, when French physician Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie Velpeau described a 63-year-old florist who developed an illness characterized by fever, weakness, urinary stones, and substantial enlargement of the liver and spleen. Velpeau noted the blood of this patient had a consistency "like gruel", and speculated the appearance of the blood was due to white corpuscles.[77] In 1845, a series of patients who died with enlarged spleens and changes in the "colors and consistencies of their blood" was reported by the Edinburgh-based pathologist J.H. Bennett; he used the term "leucocythemia" to describe this pathological condition.[78]

The term "leukemia" was coined by Rudolf Virchow, the renowned German pathologist, in 1856. As a pioneer in the use of the light microscope in pathology, Virchow was the first to describe the abnormal excess of white blood cells in patients with the clinical syndrome described by Velpeau and Bennett. As Virchow was uncertain of the etiology of the white blood cell excess, he used the purely descriptive term "leukemia" (Greek: "white blood") to refer to the condition.[79]

Further advances in the understanding of acute myeloid leukemia occurred rapidly with the development of new technology. In 1877, Paul Ehrlich developed a technique of staining blood films which allowed him to describe in detail normal and abnormal white blood cells. Wilhelm Ebstein introduced the term "acute leukemia" in 1889 to differentiate rapidly progressive and fatal leukemias from the more indolent chronic leukemias.[80] The term "myeloid" was coined by Franz Ernst Christian Neumann in 1869, as he was the first to recognize white blood cells were made in the bone marrow (Greek: µυєλός, myelos = (bone) marrow) as opposed to the spleen. The technique of bone marrow examination to diagnose leukemia was first described in 1879 by Mosler.[81] Finally, in 1900, the myeloblast, which is the malignant cell in AML, was characterized by Otto Naegeli, who divided the leukemias into myeloid and lymphocytic.[82][83]

In 2008, AML became the first cancer genome to be fully sequenced. DNA extracted from leukemic cells were compared to unaffected skin.[84] The leukemic cells contained acquired mutations in several genes that had not previously been associated with the disease.


Leukemia is rarely associated with pregnancy, affecting only about 1 in 10,000 pregnant women.[85] How it is handled depends primarily on the type of leukemia. Acute leukemias normally require prompt, aggressive treatment, despite significant risks of pregnancy loss and birth defects, especially if chemotherapy is given during the developmentally sensitive first trimester.[85]


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