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Acute leukaemia

leucèmia aguda Vall d'Hebron

Acute leukaemia involves abnormal cell growth in the haematopoietic system characterised by significant proliferation and accumulation of immature cells, firstly in the bone marrow and subsequently in the blood, with a great degree of clinical and biological heterogeneity. Acute leukaemias are clonal proliferations (tumour cells that originate from a single initial cell and accumulate various genetic mutations that result in development of the disease) of altered blood stem cells. In normal circumstances, multipotent stem cells give rise to haematopoietic cells, which give rise to blood cells via a process of cell proliferation and differentiation mediated by the cell’s own mechanisms and by the surrounding tissues. Under normal conditions, blood cells migrate to the blood and tissues and are indispensable for the body to function correctly. 




In acute leukaemias, the accumulation of different genetic and molecular alterations gives rise to the progressive accumulation of these cells, which substitute normal blood cells in a process known as "hiatus leukemicus", whereby progenitor cells (blasts) do not mature and accumulate in the bone marrow and peripheral blood. The symptomatology may be very mild and non-specific initially, resulting mainly from the lack of blood cells and sometimes from tissue infiltration. These are very serious diseases that require chemotherapy treatment to control them and often a transplant of bone marrow progenitor cells.




In many cases there are at first no major symptoms. Any symptoms there are mainly derive from the lack of blood cells and include tiredness, bleeding, infections and on rare occasions lack of appetite, bone pain, breathing difficulty or neurological symptoms. A physical examination may reveal palpitations, bruises, bleeding from mucus membranes, fever, infiltration of gums or other organs (skin, spleen, liver, etc.).



Who is affected by the condition?


The average age for acute leukaemia is generally 67 years, but it can affect people of any age. Acute leukaemia is the most common cause of abnormal cell growth in children, with lymphoid leukaemia being the most common. Myeloid leukaemia is more common in the adult population.





A suspected diagnosis is reached in a number of ways, including clinical history, physical examination and a blood test. The diagnosis is confirmed using bone marrow aspiration in which we study neoplastic cells (blasts) under a microscope, as well as conducting multiparametric flow cytometry, cytogenetic analysis and molecular biology tests.



Typical treatment


Based on chemotherapy. New drugs are currently being developed, such as immunotherapy or treatment against specific biological alterations (personalised treatment). If not contraindicated, a transplant of haematopoietic progenitor cells may be required once the response has been reached. Therapeutic strategies are adapted on the one hand to the patient’s situation (age, concomitant diseases, etc.) and on the other hand to the biological characteristics of the disease.



Typical tests


Full blood test and bone marrow aspiration.






Unfortunately, there is no way of preventing acute leukaemia from developing. The mechanisms that lead to a person developing this disease are not exactly known. We do know some factors that may be related, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy in the past or exposure to certain toxins. A predisposition in some congenital diseases has also been observed, as well as cases where there is a family history of the disease.




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