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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of leukemia. It is also called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute myelocytic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft, inner part of bones where blood cells are produced. The word "acute" in acute myeloid leukemia refers to the fact that the disease can progress quickly.

AML starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. These blood-forming cells are called myeloid stem cells. Myeloid stem cells normally develop into:

  • White blood cells, which fight infection and disease

  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen

  • Platelets, whichhelp prevent bleeding by causing blood to clot.

In most cases of AML, the stem cells develop into immature white blood cells (myeloblasts). The immature myeloblasts reproduce without becoming healthy, mature white blood cells. As the leukemia cells multiply in the bone marrow and blood, they crowd out healthy blood cells. This can lead to frequent infections, anemia, and easy bruising and bleeding.

Sometimes, too many myeloid stem cells develop into abnormal red blood cells or platelets.

Leukemia can involve tissues outside the bone marrow and blood, including lymph nodes, brain, skin and other parts of the body.

Of the childhood leukemias, AML occurs less often. Boys and girls are affected equally.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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