Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

Adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL; also called acute lymphocytic leukemia) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.

Anatomy of the bone. The bone is made up of compact bone, spongy bone, and bone marrow. Compact bone makes up the outer layer of the bone. Spongy bone is found mostly at the ends of bones and contains red marrow. Bone marrow is found in the center of most bones and has many blood vessels. There are two types of bone marrow: red and yellow. Red marrow contains blood stem cells that can become red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. Yellow marrow is made mostly of fat.

Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.

A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:

A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):

Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.

In ALL, too many stem cells become lymphoblasts, B lymphocytes, or T lymphocytes. These cells are also called leukemia cells. These leukemia cells are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may cause infection, anemia, and easy bleeding. The cancer can also spread to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

This summary is about adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:

Previous chemotherapy and exposure to radiation may increase the risk of developing ALL.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Possible risk factors for ALL include the following:

Signs and symptoms of adult ALL include fever, feeling tired, and easy bruising or bleeding.

The early signs and symptoms of ALL may be like the flu or other common diseases. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Weakness or feeling tired.
  • Fever or night sweats.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin, caused by bleeding).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite.
  • Pain in the bones or stomach.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Having many infections.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia or by other conditions.

Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to detect (find) and diagnose adult ALL.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The age of the patient.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord.
  • Whether there are certain changes in the genes, including the Philadelphia chromosome.
  • Whether the cancer has been treated before or has recurred (come back).

Stages of Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Once adult ALL has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) or to other parts of the body.

The extent or spread of cancer is usually described as stages. It is important to know whether the leukemia has spread outside the blood and bone marrow in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used to determine if the leukemia has spread:

There is no standard staging system for adult ALL.

The disease is described as untreated, in remission, or recurrent.

Untreated adult ALL

The ALL is newly diagnosed and has not been treated except to relieve signs and symptoms such as fever, bleeding, or pain.

Adult ALL in remission

The ALL has been treated.

Recurrent Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Recurrent adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is cancer that has recurred (come back) after going into remission. The ALL may come back in the blood, bone marrow, or other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with adult ALL.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

The treatment of adult ALL usually has two phases.

The treatment of adult ALL is done in phases:

  • Remission induction therapy: This is the first phase of treatment. The goal is to kill the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. This puts the leukemia into remission.
  • Post-remission therapy: This is the second phase of treatment. It begins once the leukemia is in remission. The goal of post-remission therapy is to kill any remaining leukemia cells that may not be active but could begin to regrow and cause a relapse. This phase is also called remission continuation therapy.

Treatment called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy is usually given during each phase of therapy. Because standard doses of chemotherapy may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to "find sanctuary" (hide) in the CNS. High doses of certain anticancer drugs, intrathecal chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to the brain are able to reach leukemia cells in the CNS. They are given to kill the leukemia cells and keep the cancer from recurring (coming back). CNS sanctuary therapy is also called CNS prophylaxis.

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Intrathecal chemotherapy may be used to treat adult ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. When used to prevent cancer from spreading to the brain and spinal cord, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis. Intrathecal chemotherapy is given in addition to chemotherapy by mouth or vein.Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. External radiation therapy may be used to treat adult ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. When used this way, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis.

Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant is a method of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

Stem Cell TransplantStem cell transplant (Step 1). Blood is taken from a vein in the arm of the donor. The patient or another person may be the donor. The blood flows through a machine that removes the stem cells. Then the blood is returned to the donor through a vein in the other arm.Stem cell transplant (Step 2). The patient receives chemotherapy to kill blood-forming cells. The patient may receive radiation therapy (not shown).Stem cell transplant (Step 3). The patient receives stem cells through a catheter placed into a blood vessel in the chest.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Targeted therapy drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors are used to treat some types of adult ALL. These drugs block the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (blasts) than the body needs. Three of the drugs used are imatinib mesylate (Gleevec), dasatinib, and nilotinib.

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Patients with ALL may have late effects after treatment.

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin during or after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of treatment for ALL may include the risk of second cancers (new types of cancer). Regular follow-up exams are very important for long-term survivors.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Untreated Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Standard treatment of adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the remission induction phase includes the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Remission

Standard treatment of adult ALL during the post-remission phase includes the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia in remission. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Recurrent Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Standard treatment of recurrent adult ALL may include the following:

Some of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for recurrent adult ALL include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia, see the following:

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



Cancer Care Services

Clinical Trials