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Table of Contents
What is chronic myeloid leukaemia?
Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a cancer of white blood cells that is characterised by uncontrolled growth of myeloid cells in the bone marrow. This uncontrolled growth leads to myeloid cells crowding out the bone marrow and interfering with the production of normal blood cells such as platelets, erythrocytes and neutrophils. In addition to crowding out the bone marrow, the abnormal myeloid cells spill into the peripheral blood. This is reflected in the full blood count which demonstrates abnormally raised levels of mature granulocytes (neutrophils, basophils and eosinophils).
CML was the first malignancy to be linked directly to a clear chromosomal abnormality. This abnormality involves a translocation between parts of chromosome 9 and 22, which leads to the formation of the so-called Philadelphia chromosome. As a result, a gene contained on chromosome 22 called BCR fuses with a gene on chromosome 9 known as ABL. This creates a hybrid gene known as BCR-ABL. This gene is able to add phosphates to tyrosine residues (a tyrosine kinase) and this allows BCR-ABL to activate a cascade of proteins which control the cell cycle, speeding up cell division. In addition, the BCR-ABL protein inhibits DNA repair, causing genomic instability and making the cell more susceptible to developing further genetic abnormalities. These two mechanisms of both speeding cell division and inhibiting DNA repair lead to chronic myeloid leukaemia.
Patients are often asymptomatic when diagnosed with CML, presenting incidentally with an elevated white blood cell count on routine laboratory testing.
Symptoms of CML can include:
Upper abdominal pain – hepatosplenomegaly
Poor appetite – an enlarged spleen may compress the stomach
Low-grade fever/night sweats (“B symptoms”)
Gout – increased cell turnover → excess purines → broken down to uric acid
Increased susceptibility to infections – ↓ functional immune cells
Shortness of breath/fatigue – anaemia
Easy bruising/petechiae/bleeding – low platelets
Neurological deficits/visual disturbance – hyperviscosity due to leukocytosis
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed criteria to define the various stages of CML.¹
Approximately 85% of patients with CML are in the chronic phase at the time of diagnosis.² During this phase, patients are usually asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms of fatigue or abdominal fullness. The duration of the chronic phase is variable and without treatment, the disease will usually progress to the accelerated phase eventually (due to the accumulation of genetic mutations in addition to the BCR-ABL gene).²
A patient is said to be in the accelerated phase when any of the following are present:
10 – 19% myeloblasts in the blood or bone marrow
>20% basophils in the blood or bone marrow
Platelet count <100,000, unrelated to therapy
Platelet count >1,000,000, unresponsive to therapy
Cytogenetic evolution with new abnormalities in addition to the Philadelphia chromosome
Increasing splenomegaly or white blood cell count, unresponsive to therapy
This phase is significant as it is a sign that the disease is progressing and that a blast crisis is imminent.²
Blast crisis is the final phase in the evolution of CML and behaves like acute leukaemia, with rapid progression and short survival. Blast crisis is diagnosed if any of the following are present in a patient with CML:
>20% myeloblasts or lymphoblasts in the blood or bone marrow
Large clusters of blasts in the bone marrow on biopsy
Development of a chloroma (a solid focus of leukaemia outside the bone marrow)
Full blood count
Increased numbers of eosinophils and basophils
Differential WCC shows granulocytes at all stages of development
Lactate dehydrogenase is often raised
Urate may be raised (due to high cell turnover)
U&Es are usually normal at presentation
Peripheral blood film
All stages of granulocyte maturation noted
Appearances are similar to that of a bone marrow aspirate
Bone Marrow Tests
Bone marrow aspirate
Necessary to stage disease (% of blasts determines chronic vs accelerated vs blast crisis)
Allows cytogenetic sampling to confirm diagnosis – Philadelphia chromosome
The gold standard of diagnosis is the detection of the Philadelphia chromosome, which is present in 95% of people with CML. Methods for identifying the Philadelphia chromosome include
FISH (fluorescent in-situ hybridisation)
PCR for the BCR-ABL gene
Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKI)
Imatinib (first-generation TKI)
Imatinib targets BCR-ABL, blocking the ability of the gene to phosphorylate a tyrosine
It is better tolerated and more effective than previous therapies (due to its specificity)
This treatment revolutionised CML management
The 5-year survival for those treated with Imatinib is currently around 90%.
PCR testing of BCR-ABL transcript levels is used to monitor treatment response
Treatment is required for the rest of the patient’s life
A new generation of TKIs have been developed since the introduction of Imatinib such as Nilotinib and Dasatinib.
These drugs can now be used as first-line treatment, or as alternatives should resistance develop to another agent.
Bone marrow transplantation
Bone marrow transplantation is a treatment option for those who do not respond well to drug treatments.
This tends only to be used in younger, otherwise healthy patients.
It does offer the possibility of a cure, however, there are a number of serious risks (including death), therefore the treatment is not suitable for many patients.