Acute lymphoblastic leukemia

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Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
Classification and external resources
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Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
Classification and external resources
Acute leukemia-ALL.jpg
eMedicinemed/3146 ped/2587

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a form of leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells characterized by excess lymphoblasts.

Malignant, immature white blood cells continuously multiply and are overproduced in the bone marrow. ALL causes damage and death by crowding out normal cells in the bone marrow, and by spreading (infiltrating) to other organs. ALL is most common in childhood with a peak incidence at 2–5 years of age, and another peak in old age.

Cure is a realistic goal, as ≥94% of children have continuous disease-free survival for five years and appear cured, while 30–40% of adults have continuous disease-free survival for five years.[1][2][3]

"Acute" refers to the relatively short time course of the disease (being fatal in as little as a few weeks if left untreated) to differentiate it from the very different disease of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which has a potential time course of many years. It is interchangeably referred to as lymphocytic or lymphoblastic. This refers to the cells that are involved, which if they were normal would be referred to as lymphocytes but are seen in this disease in a relatively immature (also termed "blast") state.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Initial symptoms are not specific to ALL, but worsen to the point that medical help is sought. They result from the lack of normal and healthy blood cells because they are crowded out by malignant and immature leukocytes (white blood cells). Therefore, people with ALL experience symptoms from malfunctioning of their erythrocytes (red blood cells), leukocytes, and platelets. Laboratory tests that might show abnormalities include blood count tests, renal function tests, electrolyte tests, and liver enzyme tests.[citation needed]

The signs and symptoms of ALL are variable but follow from bone marrow replacement and/or organ infiltration.


In general, cancer is caused by damage to DNA that leads to uncontrolled cellular growth and spread throughout the body, either by increasing chemical signals that cause growth or by interrupting chemical signals that control growth. Damage can be caused through the formation of fusion genes, as well as the dysregulation of a proto-oncogene via juxtaposition of it to the promoter of another gene, e.g. the T-cell receptor gene. This damage may be caused by environmental factors such as chemicals, drugs or radiation.

ALL is associated with exposure to radiation and chemicals in animals and humans. High level radiation exposure is a known risk factor for developing leukemia, as found by studies of survivors of atom bomb exposure in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[4][not in citation given] In animals, exposure to benzene and other chemicals can cause leukemia. Epidemiological studies have associated leukemia with workplace exposure to chemicals, but these studies are not as conclusive. Some evidence suggests that secondary leukemia can develop in individuals treated for other cancers with radiation and chemotherapy as a result of that treatment.[5]


Diagnosing ALL begins with a medical history, physical examination, complete blood count, and blood smears. Because the symptoms are so general, many other diseases with similar symptoms must be excluded. Typically, the higher the white blood cell count the worse the prognosis.[6] Blast cells are seen on blood smear in majority of cases (blast cells are precursors (stem cells) to all immune cell lines). A bone marrow biopsy is conclusive proof of ALL.[3] A lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) will tell if the spinal column and brain have been invaded.

Pathological examination, cytogenetics (in particular the presence of Philadelphia chromosome), and immunophenotyping establish whether myeloblastic (neutrophils, eosinophils, or basophils) or lymphoblastic (B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes) cells are the problem. RNA testing can establish how aggressive the disease is; different mutations have been associated with shorter or longer survival. Immunohistochemicaltesting may reveal TdT or CALLA antigens on the surface of leukemic cells. TdT is a protein expressed early in the development of pre-T and pre-B cells, whereas CALLA is an antigen found in 80% of ALL cases and also in the "blast crisis" of CML.

Medical imaging (such as ultrasound or CT scanning) can find invasion of other organs commonly the lung, liver, spleen, lymph nodes, brain, kidneys, and reproductive organs.[7]


Cytogenetic translocations associated with specific molecular genetic abnormalities in ALL

Cytogenetic translocationMolecular genetic abnormality%
cryptic t(12;21)TEL-AML1 fusion[8]25.4%[9]
t(1;19)(q23;p13)E2A-PBX (PBX1) fusion[10]4.8%[9]
t(9;22)(q34;q11)BCR-ABL fusion(P185)[11]1.6%[9]
t(4;11)(q21;q23)MLL-AF4 fusion[12]1.6%[9]
t(8;14)(q24;q32)IGH-MYC fusion[13]
t(11;14)(p13;q11)TCR-RBTN2 fusion[14]

12;21 is the most common translocation and portends a good prognosis. 4;11 is the most common in children under 12 months and portends a poor prognosis.[citation needed]


As ALL is not a solid tumour, the TNM notation as used in solid cancers is of little use.


Subtyping of the various forms of ALL used to be done according to the French-American-British (FAB) classification,[15] which was used for all acute leukemias (including acute myelogenous leukemia, AML).

Each subtype is then further classified by determining the surface markers of the abnormal lymphocytes, called immunophenotyping. There are 2 main immunologic types: pre-B cell and pre-T cell. The mature B-cell ALL (L3) is now classified as Burkitt's lymphoma/leukemia. Subtyping helps determine the prognosis and most appropriate treatment in treating ALL.

World Health Organization[edit]

The recent WHO International panel on ALL recommends that the FAB classification be abandoned, since the morphological classification has no clinical or prognostic relevance. It instead advocates the use of the immunophenotypic classification mentioned below.

1. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia/lymphoma. Synonyms: Former Fab L1/L2
2. Burkitt's leukemia/lymphoma. Synonyms: Former FAB L3
3. Biphenotypic acute leukemia

Variant features[edit]

  1. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia with cytoplasmic granules
  2. Aplastic presentation of ALL
  3. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia with eosinophilia
  4. Relapse of lymphoblastic leukemia
  5. Secondary ALL


The use of a TdT assay and a panel of monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) to T cell and B cell associated antigens will identify almost all cases of ALL.

Immunophenotypic categories of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)

TypesFAB ClassTdtT cell associate antigenB cell associate antigenc Igs Ig
Precursor BL1,L2+-+-/+-
Precursor TL1,L2++---


The earlier acute lymphocytic leukemia is detected, the more effective the treatment. The aim is to induce a lasting remission, defined as the absence of detectable cancer cells in the body (usually less than 5% blast cells in the bone marrow).

Treatment for acute leukemia can include chemotherapy, steroids, radiation therapy, intensive combined treatments (including bone marrow or stem cell transplants), and growth factors.[17]


Chemotherapy is the initial treatment of choice. Most ALL patients will receive a combination of different treatments. There are no surgical options, due to the body-wide distribution of the malignant cells. In general, cytotoxic chemotherapy for ALL combines multiple antileukemic drugs in various combinations. Chemotherapy for ALL consists of three phases: remission induction, intensification, and maintenance therapy.

Remission inductionThe aim of remission induction is to rapidly kill most tumor cells and get the patient into remission. This is defined as the presence of less than 5% leukemic blasts in the bone marrow, normal blood cells and absence of tumor cells from blood, and absence of other signs and symptoms of the disease. Central nervous system (CNS) prophylaxis should begin during this phase of treatment and continue during the consolidation/intensification period. The rationale is based on the presence of CNS involvement in 10%-40% of adult patients at diagnosis.Combination of Prednisolone or dexamethasone, vincristine, asparaginase (better tolerance in pediatric patients), and daunorubicin (used in Adult ALL) is used to induce remission. Central nervous system prophylaxis can achieved via irradiation, cytarabine + methotrexate, or liposomal cytarabine.[18]
Consolidation/IntensificationIntensification uses high doses of intravenous multidrug chemotherapy to further reduce tumor burden. Since ALL cells sometimes penetrate the CNS, most protocols include delivery of chemotherapy into the CNS fluid (termed intrathecal chemotherapy). Some centers deliver the drug through Ommaya reservoir (a device surgically placed under the scalp and used to deliver drugs to the CNS fluid and to extract CNS fluid for various tests). Other centers would perform multiple lumbar punctures as needed for testing and treatment delivery.Typical intensification protocols use vincristine, cyclophosphamide, cytarabine, daunorubicin, etoposide, thioguanine or mercaptopurine given as blocks in different combinations. For CNS protection, intrathecal methotrexate or cytarabine is usually used combined with or without cranio-spinal irradiation (the use of radiation therapy to the head and spine). Central nervous system relapse is treated with intrathecal administration of hydrocortisone, methotrexate, and cytarabine.
Maintenance therapyThe aim of maintenance therapy is to kill any residual cell that was not killed by remission induction, and intensification regimens. Although such cells are few, they will cause relapse if not eradicated.For this purpose, daily oral mercaptopurine, once weekly oral methotrexate, once monthly 5-day course of intravenous vincristine and oral corticosteroids are usually used. The length of maintenance therapy is 3 years for boys, 2 years for girls and adults.[19]

As the chemotherapy regimens can be intensive and protracted (often about 2 years in case of the GMALL UKALL, HyperCVAD or CALGB protocols; for ALL about 3 years, 2 months for males on COG protocols; 2 years, 2 months for females - longer for males, as testicles are a potential reservoir), many patients have an intravenous catheter inserted into a large vein (termed a central venous catheter or a Hickman line), or a Portacath, a cone-shaped port with a silicone nose that is surgically planted under the skin, usually near the collar bone, and the most effective product available, due to low infection risks and the long-term viability of a portacath.

Radiation therapy[edit]

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) is used on painful bony areas, in high disease burdens, or as part of the preparations for a bone marrow transplant (total body irradiation). Radiation in the form of whole-brain radiation is also used for central nervous system prophylaxis, to prevent recurrence of leukemia in the brain. Whole-brain prophylaxis radiation used to be a common method in treatment of children’s ALL. Recent studies showed that CNS chemotherapy provided results as favorable but with less developmental side-effects. As a result, the use of whole-brain radiation has been more limited. Most specialists in adult leukemia have abandoned the use of radiation therapy for CNS prophylaxis, instead using intrathecal chemotherapy.

Biological therapy[edit]

For some subtypes of relapsed ALL, aiming at biological targets such as the proteasome, in combination with chemotherapy, has given promising results in clinical trials.[20] Selection of biological targets on the basis of their combinatorial effects on the leukemic lymphoblasts can lead to clinical trials for improvement in the effects of ALL treatment.[21] In ongoing clinical trials, a CD19-CD3 bi-specific monoclonal murine antibody - Blinatumomab, is showing great promise.


Modified HIV has been used to reprogram the immune system of patients to attack malignant cells exhibiting the CD19 protein with some preliminary success in experimental treatments.[22]


The survival rate has improved from zero four decades ago, to 20-75 percent currently, largely due to clinical trials on new chemotherapeutic agents and improvements in stem cell transplantation (SCT) technology.[23]

Five-year survival rates evaluate older, not current, treatments. New drugs, and matching treatment to the genetic characteristics of the blast cells, may improve those rates. The prognosis for ALL differs between individuals depending on a variety of factors:

Cytogenetics, the study of characteristic large changes in the chromosomes of cancer cells, is an important predictor of outcome.[24]

Some cytogenetic subtypes have a worse prognosis than others. These include:

Cytogenetic changeRisk category
Philadelphia chromosomePoor prognosis
t(4;11)(q21;q23)Poor prognosis
t(8;14)(q24.1;q32)Poor prognosis
Complex karyotype (more than four abnormalities)Poor prognosis
Low hypodiploidy or near triploidyPoor prognosis
High hyperdiploidy (specifically, trisomy 4, 10, 17)Good prognosis
del(9p)Good prognosis

Correlation of prognosis with bone marrow cytogenetic finding in acute lymphoblastic leukemia

PrognosisCytogenetic findings
FavorableHyperdiploidy > 50 ; t (12;21)
IntermediateHyperdiploidy 47 -50; Normal(diploidy); del (6q); Rearrangements of 8q24
UnfavorableHypodiploidy-near haploidy; Near tetraploidy; del (17p); t (9;22); t (11q23)

Unclassified ALL is considered to have an intermediate prognosis.[28]


In the US, the incidence of ALL is roughly 6000 new cases per year (as of 2009),[29] or approximately 1 in 50,000. ALL accounts for approximately 70 percent of all childhood leukemia cases (ages 0 to 19 years), making it the most common type of childhood cancer.[29] It has a peak incident rate of 2–5 years old, decreasing in incidence with increasing age before increasing again at around 50 years old. ALL is slightly more common in males than females. There is an increased incidence in people with Down Syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, Ataxia telangiectasia, X-linked agammaglobulinemia, and Severe combined immunodeficiency.


Leukemia is rarely associated with pregnancy, affecting only about 1 in 10,000 pregnant women.[30] 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.[30]

It is possible, although extremely rare, for leukemia to spread from mother to the child.[31] This is called vertical transmission.

Additional images[edit]


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External links[edit]