Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Dr Henry Knipe and Dr Jonathan Bong et al.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a malignant disorder of the bone marrow characterised by the proliferation of the lymphoid progenitor cells.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the commonest form of childhood leukaemia. It accounts for 80% of paediatric leukaemia cases but only 20% in adults 1. Peak age is between 3 to 7 years, with a second peak over 40 years.

The clinical features of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia are non-specific. Children commonly have at least one of pallor, fever, a palpable liver, a palpable spleen, or bruising on diagnosis 2. Other symptoms such as bone or joint pain, weight loss, anorexia, bleeding, abdominal pain and abdominal distension are also common.

In acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the lymphoid progenitor cells, also known as lymphoblasts, do not mature due to abnormal expression of genes, often as a result of chromosomal abnormalities or chromosomal translocations. The proliferation of the primitive cells takes up more and more marrow space at the expense of the normal haematopoietic elements, resulting in a decrease in production of normal blood cells and bone marrow failure. Eventually, the lymphoblasts spill into the blood and can affect the liver, spleen, central nervous system, and lymph nodes.

Bone lesions are common in leukaemia. A metaphyseal radiolucent band is one of the most important radiological finding 3. Other radiological findings include subperiosteal new bone formation and osteolytic lesions involving medullary cavity and cortex 1,3-5.

Chest radiography may reveal a mediastinal mass.

The treatment for ALL typically has three phases:

  • induction therapy: combination chemotherapy is used to rapidly kill tumour cells with an aim to get the patient into remission
  • consolidation phase: if remission is achieved, further chemotherapy is given during this phase to treat the residual disease
  • maintenance phase: if the patient is still in remission after the consolidation phase, maintenance oral therapy is given
    • this may last up to three years if the patient remains in remission

Paediatric patients with ALL have an overall five-year survival rate of 80% depending on their risk profile 6. However, only 30-40% of adults with ALL achieve long-term remission with the current treatment regimens 7.

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rID: 60658
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