What is acute myeloid leukaemia | Cancer Research UK
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What is acute myeloid leukaemia

Men and women discussing acute myeloid leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a type of blood cancer that starts from young white blood cells called granulocytes or monocytes in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is the soft inner part of the bones, where new blood cells are made. This type of leukaemia usually develops quickly over weeks or months. It can occur in adults or children.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

What is acute myeloid leukaemia

Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow. There are several types and subtypes. In acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) white blood cells called granulocytes or monocytes become cancerous.

Blood cells and leukaemia

Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow. This is the soft inner part of your bones. You make blood cells in a controlled way, as your body needs them. All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. Stem cells then develop into one of four different types, which in turn become red blood cells, platelets, or different types of white blood cells.

In acute myeloid leukaemia, the bone marrow makes too many white cells called monocytes or granulocytes. The cells made are not fully developed and don't work normally.

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. If your body doesn't have enough healthy white blood cells, you are more likely to get infections. And you can find it difficult to get rid of them. Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen and lymph nodes) and in the liver.

If there are too many white blood cells, the bone marrow gets overcrowded and there is not enough space for other types of blood cells. So you may have lower than normal levels of red blood cells and platelets.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about AML section.

 

 

What happens in AML

The word acute means that the leukaemia can develop fairly quickly and if not treated would cause death within a few weeks or months.  It is most often diagnosed in older people, and is most common in people over 65 years old. Treatments work very well for most people with AML. 

The bone marrow produces white blood cells called granulocytes or monocytes too quickly because they grow and divide too fast. These abnormal cells build up in the blood and bone marrow. The leukaemic cells can eventually spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes and the spleen.

 

Blood cells and leukaemia

To understand how and why leukaemia affects you as it does, it helps to know how you make blood cells.

Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is the soft inner part of your bones. You make blood cells in a controlled way, as your body needs them.

All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. This stem cell then develops into

  • Myeloid stem cells, which become white blood cells called monocytes and granulocytes (neutrophils)
  • Lymphoid stem cells, which become white blood cells called lymphocytes
  • Erythroblasts, which become red blood cells
  • Megakaryocytes, which become platelets

The diagram helps to explain this.

Diagram showing how blood cells are made

In acute myeloid leukaemia, the bone marrow makes too many monocytes or granulocytes. These cells are not fully developed and are not able to work normally.

Diagram showing the cells in which AML starts

 

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. But if your body makes abnormal white blood cells, they don’t work properly. So you are more likely to get infections and find it difficult to get rid of them.

Too many white blood cells can overcrowd the bone marrow. So there is not enough space for other types of blood cells. Then you might have lower than normal levels of red blood cells and platelets.

Having too few red blood cells makes you tired and breathless (anaemic). And if you don’t have enough platelets, you can have bleeding problems, such as bruising or nosebleeds.

Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in other parts of the body, such as the spleen and lymph nodes or the liver. This can make your tummy (abdomen) swell and feel uncomfortable. The leukaemia cells can also spread to the brain in some people.

 

Types of leukaemia

There are several types and subtypes of leukaemia. The name of the leukaemia you have depends on

  • How quickly it develops
  • The type of white blood cells it affects

Doctors divide leukaemia into two main groups – acute and chronic. Acute leukaemia develops very quickly. Chronic leukaemia tends to develop slowly, usually over months or years without causing many symptoms.

Doctors divide these groups further, depending on the type of white blood cell they affect.

In acute leukaemia,

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia affects myeloid cells
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) affects lymphoid cells

In chronic leukaemia

  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) affects myeloid cells
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) affects lymphoid cells

You can read about other types of leukaemia.

 

For more information

Find out about

Symptoms of AML

About AML

Diagnosing AML

Treating AML

Living with AML

For general information and support 

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday) 

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

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Updated: 21 June 2016