Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) Treatment
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023 | Last updated: September 2023
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a fast-growing type of cancer that can quickly progress. It is also called acute lymphoblastic leukemia.1
Treatment for ALL is based on several factors, such as:1
- The specific type of ALL
- The age of the person with ALL
- The general health of the person with ALL
Treatment for ALL should start soon after diagnosis. If time safely allows, it can be helpful to get a second opinion. A second opinion can provide more information or other treatment options.1,2
Types of treatment for ALL
There are several types of treatment used for ALL, including:3
- Radiation therapy
- Stem cell transplant
- Targeted therapy
- Central nervous system (CNS) prophylaxis therapy
Chemotherapy is the term for medicines that stop the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy works by targeting fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. But chemotherapy can cause unwanted side effects because it destroys all sorts of other fast-growing cells in the body. These include cells in the gut and hair.1,3
Chemotherapy drugs may be used with other drugs, with radiation, or alone. They may be taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle.1,3
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancerous cells. It may be used in cases of ALL that have spread to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) or the brain. CSF is a clear liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Radiation therapy also may be used for ALL that has spread to the testicles.1,3
Radiation therapy may be given in preparation for stem cell transplant. It also can be used for palliative care. Palliative care helps ease symptoms like pain. For example, it may reduce bone pain from leukemia.1,3
Stem cell transplant
Stem cells are immature blood cells. Healthy stem cells may be taken from the person with ALL or a donor. These cells are then stored. After the person with ALL is given chemotherapy or radiation, the healthy stem cells are put back into their body. This process helps their bone marrow produce healthy blood cells again.3
When the replacement stem cells come from a donor, it is called an allogeneic transplant. When the person’s own stem cells are used, it is called an autologous transplant. Stem cell transplants used for ALL are usually allogeneic.3
Targeted therapy usually stops or slows the growth of cancer cells. This is different from chemotherapy, which often kills cancer cells. Targeted therapies are sometimes paired with chemotherapy to treat some types of ALL. Targeted therapies target features that are unique to cancer cells or block areas of cancer cells involved in growth.1,3
Two types of targeted therapies used to treat ALL are:1,3
- Monoclonal antibody therapy – In this therapy, antibodies are created in a lab to identify and block cancer growth or kill cancer cells.
- Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) – TKIs target a specific protein found in certain cancer cells.
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that aims to boost the body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells. Some immunotherapy treatments may help cause remission. But they are often effective only in certain groups of people with ALL.1
One type of immunotherapy is called CAR T-cell therapy. It uses the body’s own T cells to attack the cancer cells. Currently, CAR T-cell therapy is only approved for certain types of ALL that have relapsed, or come back.3-5
CNS prophylaxis therapy
Leukemia cells can sometimes hide in the CNS. The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord.3
CNS prophylaxis is a treatment used to prevent leukemia from spreading to or coming back in the CNS. CNS prophylaxis usually takes the form of intrathecal (IT) chemotherapy and high-dose chemotherapy. These therapies are also used to treat existing cancer cells in the CNS.3
In IT chemotherapy, drugs are injected directly into the CSF. IT chemotherapy is given in 2 ways:6
- Using an Ommaya reservoir (a small plastic dome that sits on the skull with a thin tube that connects to the part of the brain that makes CSF)
- Injecting the chemotherapy drugs at the base of the spine
All treatments for ALL involve steroids. Steroids help fight inflammation. They are also toxic to lymphoid cells, which have a role in the development of ALL. Corticosteroids and glucocorticoids are the types of steroids that may be used to treat ALL.2
Treatment for ALL is generally grouped into phases:7
- Induction therapy – Given soon after diagnosis.
- Consolidation therapy – Given after induction to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence).
- Maintenance therapy – Given to lower the risk of recurrence following induction and consolidation therapies.
Clinical trials are a type of research in which new treatments are studied. Clinical trials are an important part of the scientific process to find and prove the safety and effectiveness of new treatments. They offer people a chance to get the latest treatments while being closely monitored by doctors.8
You can talk to your doctor or visit ClinicalTrials.gov to learn more about clinical trials. Your doctor can help you decide whether a clinical trial may be right for you.1,8