Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center



Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of primitive white blood cells in the bone marrow. It is the most common type of acute leukemia seen in adults, accounting for 80 percent of such cases. There are two major types:

  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Non-APL — Characterized by the overproduction of primitive myeloid cells called blasts, resulting in reduced production of neutrophils (infection-fighting white blood cells), red blood cells and platelets. The prognosis of this form of AML depends on the presence (and type) or absence of chromosome changes in the leukemia cells. It is treated with chemotherapy.
  • M3 – Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL) — Characterized by the presence of atypical promyelocytes in the bone marrow and peripheral blood, this type of leukemia can be associated with severe bleeding. A translocation between chromosomes 15 and 17 commonly occurs and suggests a better prognosis. This condition represents approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of AML cases. It is treated with chemotherapy, a vitamin A derivative called ATRA, and arsenic.

Typically AML comes on suddenly, within days or weeks. Less often, a patient has been ill for a few months or may have a prior history of Myelodysplastic Syndrome.

AML makes people sick primarily by interfering with normal bone marrow function. The leukemia cells replace and crowd out the normal cells of the bone marrow, thereby causing low blood cell counts. This insufficient number of red blood cells results in a condition called anemia, which causes a person to be tired and pale. Lack of platelets can make you more susceptible to bleeding and bruising, especially in the skin, nose and gums.

Lowered levels of normal white blood cells increase the risk of infection.