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Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) 

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the bone marrow and the blood that progresses rapidly without treatment. AML mostly affects cells that aren’t fully developed, leaving these cells unable to carry out their normal functions. It can be a difficult disease to treat; researchers are studying new approaches to AML therapy in clinical trials.

What You Should Know about AML

  • It's important to speak to your doctor about the best treatment option for you
  • For some patients, AML is curable with current therapies
  • Researchers are studying new approaches to therapy in clinical trials

You should be treated be a hematologist-oncologist, a specialist who treats people with AML or other types of blood cancer.

Find statistics for AML and other blood cancers.

What You Should Do

  • Seek treatment in a cancer center where doctors are experienced in treating patients with acute leukemia
  • Talk with your doctor about:
    • Your diagnostic tests
    • What the test results mean
    • All your treatment options
    • Goals of treatment

Learn more about communicating with your blood care specialist or find a list of suggested questions to ask your healthcare providers.

How Does AML Develop?

  • Normal stem cells form healthy blood cells such as red and white cells and platelets. AML results when the DNA (genetic material) of a developing stem cell cell in the bone marrow becomes damaged. This is called an “acquired mutation.” This damaged cell becomes a leukemic cell and multiplies into billions of cells called leukemic blasts. Leukemic blasts do not function normally
  • Block the production of normal cells
  • Grow and survive better than normal cells

As a result, the number of healthy blood cells is usually lower than normal, and can result in the following conditions:

  • Anemia: a condition where there is a low number of red cells in the blood, which can cause fatigue and shortness of breath
  • Neutropenia: a condition where there is a low number of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell), so the immune system can't effectively guard against infection.
  • Thrombocytopenia: a condition where there is a low number of platelets, which can cause bleeding and easy bruising with no apparent cause
  • Pancytopenia: a condition resulting from low numbers of all three blood cell counts

Click here to view a 3D Model of AML. 

Risk Factors for AML

For most people who have AML, there are no known cause or obvious reasons (risk factors) why they developed the disease. You cannot catch AML from someone else.

While the cause of AML is unknown, several factors are associated with an increased risk of developing AML, including the following:

  • Age: the risk of developing AML increases with age
  • Sex: males are more likely than females to develop AML
  • Exposure to dangerous chemicals: long-term exposure to high levels of certain chemicals, such as benzene, is linked to a greater risk of AML
  • Smoking: AML is linked to exposure to tobacco smoke, which contains benzene and other cancer-causing agents
  • Previous cancer treatment: people who received radiation therapy or chemotherapy have an increased risk of developing AML, called "treatment-related" or "therapy-related" AML
  • Exposure to very high doses of radiation: people exposed to very high levels of radiation are at increased risk of developing AML (for example, survivors of an atomic bomb blast or a nuclear reactor accident)
  • Other blood cancers: certain blood disorders, such as myeloproliferative neoplasms or myelodysplastic syndromes, can evolve over time into AML
  • Genetic disorders: genetic disorders present at birth that seem to increase the risk of AML include Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, Bloom syndrome, Trisomy 8, Fanconi anemia, Klinefelter syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Kostmann syndrome, and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome
  • Familial risk/germline predisposition: certain gene mutations present at birth may increase the risk of developing AML

Source: Acute Myeloid Leukemia in Adults. Reviewed by Olatoyosi Odenike, MD.