What is acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)?

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. ALL can also be referred to as acute lymphocytic leukemia. In ALL, altered DNA in the bone marrow cells causes the production of immature white blood cells. These immature white blood cells turn into abnormal leukemia cells called lymphoblasts which then begin to outnumber the normal blood cells. The disease gets the word “acute” in its name because of the inability of the white blood cells to mature and from the disease’s capacity to progress quickly. This quick progression can then result in it spreading to other parts of the body (metastasize). 
With ALL, prompt detection and treatment is important. ALL is the most common childhood cancer, but with proper treatment the prognosis is good. The disease is less common in adults and unfortunately has a poorer prognosis. 
ALL is classified into subtypes based on the immunophenotype of the leukemia:
  • B-cell ALL
  • Early pre-B (also called pro-B) 
  • Common 
  • Pre-B 
  • Mature B-cell (Burkitt leukemia)
  • T-cell ALL
  • Pre-T 
  • Mature T-cell  
*These classifications are named after the type of lymphocyte that the cancer cell originated from and its level of maturity*
Risk Factors
  • Genetic disorders such as
  • Klinefelter syndrome
  • Fanconi anemia
  • Bloom syndrome
  • Ataxia-telangiectasia
  • Radiation exposure
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene 
  • Having a sibling with acute lymphoblastic leukemia
  • Prior cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Being a child under the age of 5
  • Race/ethnicity (ALL occurs more often in whites than African Americans)
A complete medical history and physical exam will be obtained and your physician will want to know any signs and symptoms you have had and for how long. Some tests that may be obtained to diagnose ALL include:
  • Complete blood count (CBC) and differential: The complete blood count looks at the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The differential count looks at the number of each type of white blood cell. People with ALL will typically have an elevated amount of immature white blood cells (lymphoblasts) and a decreased number red blood cells and platelets. 
  • Peripheral blood smear: A drop of blood is looked at under a microscope to reveal any changes in the number/appearance of cells. 
  • Bone marrow test: This test involves the aspiration of a sample of bone marrow that is then biopsied. The sample is taken from the hipbone using a needle but can sometimes be taken from the breast bone. The bone marrow cells will be looked at under a microscope to determine their types. If 20-30% of cells are immature this can be an indication of ALL. 
  • Lumbar puncture: This test involves taking out a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to detect the spread of cancerous cells. 
  • X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scan, or ultrasound: These imaging techniques can be used to detect the spread of the cancer to other body parts
  • Other tests:
  • Cytochemistry 
  • Gallium and bone scan 
  • Flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry
  • Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH)
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
  • Lymph node biopsy
  • Cytogenetics 
Different types of treatments are used based on the subtype of the ALL as well as other factors. Treatment length usually lasts about 2 years. Treatments may include:
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Stem cell transplants
  • Clinical trials
  • The American Cancer Society found that there were approximately 5,970 new cases of ALL (3,350 in males and 2,620 in females) and approximately 1,440 deaths from ALL (800 in males and 640 in females) in 2017.
  • Approximately 4 out of 10 cases of ALL are in adults 
  • Approximately 4 out 5 deaths from ALL occur in adults 
  • The risk of developing ALL over the course of one’s life is 1 in 750
about acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)

  • "Acute lymphocytic leukemia." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Jul. 2017.
  • “Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).” Cleveland Clinic, 23 Jul. 2012. Web. 28 Jul. 2017.
  • “What is Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia?” American Cancer Society, 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Jul. 2017.
  • “How is Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Classified?” American Cancer Society, 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 28. Jul. 2017.
  • “What are the Key Statistics About Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia?” American Cancer Society, 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 28. Jul. 2017.
  • “If You Have Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).” American Cancer Society, 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Jul. 2017.


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