Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL)

What is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia?

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and the bone marrow. It is sometimes also referred to as acute lumphocytic leukemia or ALL for short. The reason that this type of cancer is labeled as acute is that it is a very rapidly developing and spreading type of cancer that proliferates over a short period of time. This does not mean that the cancer will not recur, nor does it necessarily indicate that it is the first time a person has had cancer of this type.

Cause of cancer

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia starts in the stem cells in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is where all types of blood cells are produced. A genetic mutation in the DNA of the stem cells causes this type of cancer. Specifically, there are stem cells that will develop into white blood cells in the bone marrow and some of these form lymphoblasts that eventually become either B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes (two of the types of white blood cells). Acute lymphoblastic leukemia affects these cells.

Most common cancer among children

This form of cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among children. There is no known cause for the mutation in the DNA that causes acute lymphoblastic leukemia and most cases are not inherited. The DNA mutation can occur before the person is even born. Oftentimes, this means that the cancer appears during infancy or early childhood. However, acute lymphoblastic leukemia can also develop later.

What are the Symptoms of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia?

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia can cause bleeding from the gums and/or nose as well as dark bruises on the skin for unknown reasons. Bone pains as well as aches and pains throughout the limbs and body may also be signs of the condition. Fatigue, tiredness, and weakness are also common signs of ALL.

A person may also experience swollen lymph nodes, fevers, frequent illness or infections, headaches, pale skin, and shortness of breath even from very little physical activity.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Causes

The major cause of ALL is DNA mutations in the bone marrow affecting the process of hematopoiesis. The bone marrow drives the entire blood cellular component formation and blood producing system. When DNA errors occur, they cause immature cells produced in the bone marrow to divide continually. However, unlike normal, healthy cells that would undergo apoptosis and necrosis (cell death), the DNA mutations propagate the growth and replicate these immature cells which go on to develop into dysfunctional leukemic white blood cells (lymphoblasts).

Often, translocations (when part of a chromosome breaks off and attaches to another chromosome), are responsible for the formation of oncogenes (genes causing cancer). Deletions (loss) and inversions (rearrangement) of parts of the chromosome structure also play a part in ALL. The etiology of the DNA mutations causing ALL is not apparent, but medical research continues to look into the same. Studies, however, show that in most cases, ALL is normally not genetically heritable. DNA mutations from a parent are, however, still a risk factor. Mutations that happen during one’s lifetime, such as those caused by radiation or carcinogenic chemicals, are more likely to be the cause than inherited mutations. Other risk factors include inherited syndromes like Down and Klinefelter, viral infections, race, and gender predisposition – Caucasians and males are more susceptible than Africans and females, for example. Other unverified risk factors like smoking, hair dyes, and electromagnetic field exposure are thought to contribute.

How is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treated?

Treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) depends on the staging of the cancer and any previous cancer treatments used. Chemotherapy is often the first line of treatment for ALL. Because ALL is a rapidly spreading, aggressive form of cancer, these treatments are often high-doses of chemotherapy and may require long-term hospitalization due to the patient’s compromised immune system.

In some cases of ALL, targeted drug therapies may also be useful to go after specific protein or genetic signatures in cancer cells while sparing healthy cells from damage.

Radiation therapy can be another ALL treatment option if the cancer has spread beyond the bone marrow and blood cells. Some patients also receive stem cell transplants, particularly after chemotherapy or other treatments, to replace the damaged or mutated stem cells with properly functioning healthy ones.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Prevention

According to research, not much can be done to prevent ALL due to the unknown nature of its causes and risk factors. Precautionary measures include limiting exposure to dangerous radiation and chemicals flagged as potential carcinogens. Avoid smoking and overuse of hair dyes, if possible.

Precautionary measures in the workplace for those who face exposure to chemicals, electromagnetic fields, diesel, pesticides, gasoline, and other petrochemicals is necessary. Healthy eating is perhaps the best possible way to protect yourself against ALL. Eat anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory foods especially those that help in proper blood formation. Research in alternative medicine has provided some of these nutrients and dietary supplements one can use. Proper lifestyle habits may help prevent some of these diseases. Recognition of the symptoms, early detection, and diagnosis is of great importance in the fight against ALL.

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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
November 01, 2017