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Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. In AML, the bone marrow makes many unformed cells called blasts. Blasts normally develop into white blood cells that fight infection. However, the blasts are abnormal in AML. They do not develop and cannot fight infections. The bone marrow may also make abnormal red blood cells and platelets.

The number of abnormal cells (or leukemia cells) grows quickly. They crowd out the normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs. The symptoms of AML are caused by low numbers of healthy blood cells and high numbers of leukemia cells. Red cells are needed to transport oxygen to the tissues, and one of the symptoms of AML is fatigue and anemia. White cells are needed to fight infections, and platelets are needed to stop bleeding.

AML is the most common type of acute leukemia. Approximately 12,900 new cases occur in the United States each year, mostly in older adults. The average age of a person with AML is 65 years. AML is diagnosed when blood and bone marrow samples show a large number of leukemia cells. AML has eight subtypes, labeled M0 through M7. The subtypes are based on the type of blood cells affected.

AML can get worse quickly, so doctors usually begin treatment right away. For a patient with AML, the treatment plan may include:

  • Chemotherapy — drugs that destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing.
  • A bone marrow or cord blood transplant.
  • All-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) if he or she has the subtype of AML known as promyelocytic leukemia.
  • Other newer treatments that were recently developed or are still being studied in clinical trials.

About 70–80% of patients who achieve first complete remission will relapse, and the overall five year survival rate is less than 25%.