What is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)?

Acute myeloid leukemia (also called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, or AML) is a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. AML develops from myeloid cells, the cells that normally develop into red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. As an acute blood cancer, AML is fast growing and can progress quickly, and prompt treatment is important.1,2

The cells that make up the blood, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets, are made in the bone marrow. When a myeloid cell becomes cancerous, it rapidly multiplies and can crowd out normal, healthy cells. AML begins in the bone marrow, but it can quickly spread to other areas of the body, including the central nervous system and the lymph nodes.1,2

What causes acute myeloid leukemia?

The exact causes of AML are unknown, but the cancer begins with damage to the DNA of the cell. The damage may be inherited (genetic) or acquired (develop as a result of exposure to something in the environment), although most cases of AML are a result of acquired mutations that occur over time.1

How does acute myeloid leukemia develop?

Blood is made up of several different cells, each with its own purpose. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues, platelets help stop bleeding by creating clots, and white blood cells are the immune system’s primary defense and are critical for fighting infections. Each of these blood cells are created in the bone marrow, the spongy center portion of bones. The bone marrow contains blood stem cells, which are immature cells that can become different types of cells in the body. The stem cells differentiate into myeloid cells or lymphoid cells. Myeloid cells can become white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.3,4 AML is a blood cancer that develops from myeloid cells, and AML can be further categorized into multiple subtypes.1,2

What are the different types of acute myeloid leukemia?

There are different subtypes of AML, and the subtype helps guide treatment recommendations. The subtypes are categorized by the cell type. Subtypes of AML include:

  • Acute promyelocytic leukemia
  • Acute myelomonocytic leukemia
  • Acute monocytic leukemia
  • Acute erythroid leukemia
  • Acute megakaryoblastic leukemia
  • Acute basophilic leukemia2

Who gets acute myeloid leukemia?

AML is more common in older adults, although it can rarely occur in younger people or children. The median age of diagnosis for AML is 68 years of age. AML is more common among men than women. It is a relatively rare disease, with an estimated 21,380 new cases being diagnosed in 2017.5

What factors increase a person’s risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia?

Risk factors are characteristics that can increase someone’s chances of developing a disease, like AML. Some of the known risk factors for AML include:

  • Smoking
  • Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene, a chemical found in gasoline, the rubber industry, the chemical industry, cigarette smoke, and some cleaning products
  • Previous treatment with certain chemotherapy drugs, like alkylating and platinum agents or topoisomerase II inhibitors
  • Exposure to high-dose radiation, like being a survivor of an atomic bomb or nuclear reactor accident
  • Certain blood disorders, including chronic myeloproliferative disorders or myelodysplastic syndrome
  • Some genetic syndromes, including Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, Ataxia-telangiectasia, Diamond-Blackfan anemia, Schwachman-Diamond syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, and severe congenital neutropenia
  • Some chromosomal syndromes, like Down syndrome or trisomy8
  • Family history of AML
  • Being male (AML is more common in males than females)
  • Getting older1,2

What are the common symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia?

People with AML may experience symptoms due to the crowding out of healthy blood cells, such as:

  • Anemia, a lack of red blood cells that can cause paleness and fatigue
  • Low platelet count, which can result in bleeding or bruising
  • Low white blood cell count, which can cause frequent infections or mild fever1,2

Other common symptoms that AML causes (but can also be associated with other conditions), include:

How is acute myeloid leukemia staged?

A standard staging system does not exist for AML.4 AML is generally classified by its subtype, which can help to guide treatment recommendations.1,4

What is the prognosis for acute myeloid leukemia?

The prognosis for AML differs by each of the subtypes, but in general, older patients (over 60 years of age) tend to have a poorer prognosis than younger patients. While AML can be a difficult disease to treat, the survival rate for leukemia, including AML, has been steadily increasing over the last several years. (Survival rates are based on previous outcomes of people who survive a set amount of time after diagnosis. In cancer estimates, experts use the “five-year survival rate” as a marker. However, it is important to keep in mind that many people live beyond five years after diagnosis and the statistics are not necessarily predictive for any one individual.) Based on data from 2007-2013 (the most recent data available), the National Cancer Institute has determined the five-year survival rate for AML overall is 26.9%, and the five-year survival rate for children and adolescents (younger than 15 years) with AML is 66.8%.2,5

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: February 2018
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