For many people, the word “leukemia” sounds scary. They may envision a very sick patient in the hospital who has limited options. They might think this patient has a cancer that is extremely difficult to treat and that their life may be cut short. This can indeed be the case, especially for people with types of leukemia that are particularly aggressive, like acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. But over the last few years, scientists and medical researchers have made important research advances for people living with AML.
AML is one of the most common types of adult leukemias, and will have been diagnosed in about 20,000 Americans in 2019 alone. AML is a type of hematologic (blood) cancer, in which white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets form abnormally in the bone marrow and grow rapidly. The average age of a person with AML is 68, making this type of cancer primarily a disease of the elderly, who tend to have a poorer outcome than their younger counterparts.2,
Hematologists who treat people with AML typically concentrate on helping people go into remission – meaning the signs and symptoms of their cancer decrease or disappear. Typically, intensive chemotherapy, radiation and eventually a bone marrow transplant is used to achieve remission.3 But AML patients who are elderly or suffering from other serious health conditions, such as diabetes, pneumonia or an infection, may be too sick and frail to withstand these intensive types of treatment. Until recently, those patients had no other treatment options.
Fortunately, in the last several years, scientists have made important strides in understanding the genetics of how AML develops in the bone marrow and how it functions and progresses. This improved knowledge about the underlying biology of AML has led to additional treatment options. One novel option, called targeted therapy, works by specifically interfering with certain molecules in leukemia cells that cause them to grow and spread. Targeted therapy hones in on cancer cells. Clinical trials of targeted therapy have shown that it can improve the experiences of people with AML.
While the scientific community has come a long way in understanding AML, medical researchers are continuing to pursue research that could lead to even more advances in treatment. Until that time, additional treatment options are available to help people with AML. If you or someone you love is living with AML, it’s important to find a doctor who can help you determine the course of treatment that’s right for you. For more information, visit www.LLS.org.
 Döhner H, Weisdorf DJ, Bloomfield CD. Acute myeloid leukemia. N Engl J Med. 2015;373(12):1136-1152.