Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a myeloproliferative disorder of pluripotent haemopoietic stem cells, affecting one or all cell lines (erythroid, platelet and myeloid). Over time, the leukaemic cells proliferate due to stepped-up production and failed apoptosis. More than 90% of cases of CML result from a cytogenetic aberration known as the Philadelphia chromosome. CML typically progresses through three stages:[1, 2]

Chronic phase

  • The immune system is competent and patients are asymptomatic for prolonged periods - typically, about 4-5 years.
  • More than 90% of patients are diagnosed in the initial chronic phase.[3]

Accelerated phase

  • Defined by 15-29% blasts in blood or bone marrow, >20% basophils in blood, thrombocytosis, thrombocytopenia unrelated to therapy or clonal chromosome abnormalities in the Ph+ (Philadelphia chromosome) clone (CCA/Ph+).[3]
  • In about two thirds of patients, the chronic phase transforms into an accelerated phase characterised by a moderate increase in blast cells, increasing anaemia or thrombocytopenia.
  • Features of the accelerated phase include progressive maturation arrest, increased bone marrow or peripheral blasts (15-30%), increased bone marrow or peripheral basophils and eosinophils (≥20%), resistance to therapy, increased constitutional symptoms, progressive splenomegaly, cytogenetic clonal evolution, leukocytosis and thrombocytosis or thrombocytopenia.

Blast crisis or blastic phase

  • After a variable amount of time (usually months) the accelerated phase progresses to acute blastic transformation. About a third of patients will move directly from the chronic phase of CML to blastic crisis.
  • The blastic phase or blast crisis is characterised by ≥30% blasts in blood or bone marrow or extramedullary blastic infiltration.
  • This is an aggressive acute leukaemia with marrow exhaustion, highly refractory to chemotherapy and usually rapidly fatal.
  • Features of blastic phase include bone marrow or peripheral blasts ≥30%, severe constitutional symptoms due to tumour burden (weight loss, fever, night sweats, bone pain), infection and bleeding and extramedullary blastic foci.
  • The annual incidence of CML is 4.2 cases per 100,000.[3]
  • CML represents about 15% of all adult leukaemias.[1]
  • Presentation can occur at any age; however, it is rare in children (CML represents only 5% of childhood leukaemia). The median age at diagnosis is 72 years.[3]

The initiating event or events are unknown: there are no known hereditary, familial, geographic, ethnic or economic associations. There may be an increased risk after exposure to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but not with lower levels of radiation. [4]

  • CML is characterised by a consistent cytogenetic abnormality - a reciprocal translocation between the long arms of chromosomes 22 and 9, t(9;22). The result is a shortened chromosome 22, known as the Ph chromosome.
  • The translocation is significant because it places an oncogene (abl) from the long arm of chromosome 9 to the long arm of chromosome 22 in the BCR region. The BCR-ABL fusion gene encodes a chimeric protein with strong tyrosine kinase activity. This constitutively active BCR-ABL tyrosine kinase causes CML but how the presence of this oncoprotein leads to the CML phenotype is not fully understood.
  • CML's hallmark is the presence of BCR-ABL rearrangement and is considered diagnostic when present in a patient with clinical manifestations of CML.

85-90% of patients are diagnosed in the chronic phase and in recent years about 40% of patients have been diagnosed before any symptoms developed, with incidental abnormalities spotted on a blood test.[1]

Chronic myeloid leukaemia symptoms

Symptoms can be insidious in onset and include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Night sweats.
  • Weight loss.
  • Abdominal fullness or abdominal distension.
  • Left upper quadrant pain due to splenic infarction.


  • Splenomegaly - the most common physical finding, which may extend towards the right iliac fossa.
  • Hepatomegaly.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes are also a possibility.
  • Anaemia can produce a hyperdynamic circulation.
  • Easy bruising.
  • Fever.
  • Gout due to rapid cell turnover.
  • Hyperviscosity syndrome due to leukocytosis - visual disturbance (fundoscopy may show papilloedema, venous obstruction and retinal haemorrhages), priapism, cerebrovascular accident (CVA), confusion.

At presentation

  • FBC:
    • Leukocytosis is common.
    • Differential shows granulocytes at all stages of development and increased numbers of eosinophils and basophils.
    • Platelets may be elevated, decreased or normal levels.
    • A mild-to-moderate, usually normochromic and normocytic, anaemia is common.
  • Peripheral blood smear - all stages of maturation seen; often resembles a bone marrow aspiration.
  • Biochemistry - U&Es are usually normal at presentation, lactate dehydrogenase is usually raised, serum urate may be raised.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are essential to quantify the percentage of blasts and basophils, to assess the degree of fibrosis and to obtain material for cytogenetic-molecular analyses.
  • The leukocyte alkaline phosphatase test is largely of historical interest, as it has been superseded by cytogenetic tests; however, it was used previously to differentiate CML from other myeloproliferative disorders.
  • Cytogenetics - the characteristic feature in CML is the Ph chromosome, found in about 90% of cases. Of those with a negative Ph chromosome, a third to one half test positive for the abnormal gene, or the abnormal protein associated with the chromosome, when more sensitive studies, such as dual fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH) or polymerase chain reaction (PCR), are used. They have a similar prognosis and response to treatment as patients with classical Ph CML.
  • HLA typing for patients and family members if stem cell transplantation (SCT) is contemplated.

During chronic myeloid leukaemia treatment

  • Cytogenetic response is monitored by regular karyotyping or FISH studies looking at the percentage of bone marrow cells with Ph+ cells.
  • Molecular response is monitored by looking at PCR studies demonstrating BCR-ABL transcript levels. Rising levels can indicate loss of response to treatment.[5]
  • BCR-ABL mutation analysis to determine likely susceptibility to treatment.

Frequency of monitoring will depend upon local protocols.

The Ph chromosome is diagnostic but, where it is negative, consider:

Goals of treatment are:

  • Haematologic remission (normal FBC count, physical examination, ie no organomegaly).
  • Cytogenetic remission (normal chromosome returns with 0% Ph-positive cells).
  • Molecular remission (negative PCR result for the mutational BCR-ABL m-RNA).

Drug treatment is superior to allogeneic stem cell transplantation (alloSCT) in first-line therapy of CML, because of transplant-related mortality.[6]

Drug therapies

In recent years, tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) have come to dominate the treatment of CML. In the past, myelosuppressive drug treatment has included busulfan and hydroxyurea. Interferon alfa provides better results than traditional chemotherapy, associated with improved survival.


  • Imatinib:
    • Imatinib was one of the first drugs designed on an understanding of a disease's molecular biology. It is a selective inhibitor of the tyrosine kinase encoded by BCR-ABL fusion gene; it inhibits proliferation and induces apoptosis in cells positive for BCR-ABL and Ph+ leukaemic clones. Imatinib is now firmly established as an effective therapy for newly diagnosed patients with CML.[7, 8]
    • Rates of complete cytogenetic response (CCgR) among patients receiving imatinib were 69% by 12 months and 87% by 60 months. These patients had a significantly lower risk of disease progression. Only 7% of patients progressed to accelerated phase CML or blast crisis over five years and the estimated overall survival of patients who received imatinib as initial therapy was 89% at the same time period.[9]
    • It has very quickly become standard therapy for CML because of its remarkable efficacy and mild side-effect profile.[9]
  • Second- and third-generation TKIs:
    • Imatinib seems particularly effective in chronic phase CML. In more advanced disease, patients are less likely to be sensitive and often display a short-lived response to the drug. Failure of imatinib therapy associated with progression in the accelerated or blastic phase carries a particularly poor prognosis.[10]
    • Primary and secondary drug resistance at all stages of the disease has been observed. The underlying mechanisms of drug resistance are beginning to be understood and second-generation drugs such as nilotinib (a more potent BCR-ABL inhibitor) and dasatinib (a dual ABL/SRC inhibitor) have been developed.[11, 12] Trials have shown that these drugs are effective in patients previously exposed to imatinib.[13, 14]
    • Third-generation TKIs are being developed to target further mutations associated with drug resistance, and combination therapy may be a strategy to pre-empt resistance.[15]

For first-line treatment of CML, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends the following:[16]

  • Standard-dose imatinib is recommended as an option for the first-line treatment of adults with chronic phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive CML.
  • Nilotinib and dasatinib are recommended as options for the first-line treatment of adults with chronic phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive CML if the manufacturers make these drugs available with the discount agreed as part of the patient access scheme.

Imatinib is also recommended as an option for the treatment of people with Philadelphia chromosome-positive CML who initially present in the accelerated phase or with blast crisis, and as an option for people who present in the chronic phase and then progress to the accelerated phase or blast crisis if they have not received imatinib previously.[17]

For CML resistant to standard-dose imatinib, NICE currently recommends the following:[18]

  • Nilotinib and dasatinib are recommended for the treatment of chronic or accelerated phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive CML in adults: whose CML is resistant to treatment with standard-dose imatinib or who have imatinib intolerance and if the manufacturers makes these drugs available with the discount agreed as part of the patient access scheme.
  • High-dose imatinib is not recommended for the treatment of chronic, accelerated or blast crisis phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive CML that is resistant to standard-dose imatinib.

Editor's note

Dr Krishna Vakharia 9th August 2022

Asciminib for treating chronic myeloid leukaemia after 2 or more tyrosine kinase inhibitors[19]

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended asciminib (a tyrosine inhibitor), as an option for treating chronic-phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukaemia without a T315I mutation after two or more tyrosine kinase inhibitors have been tried in adults.

Usual treatment for chronic-phase Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukaemia without a known T315I mutation after two or more tyrosine kinase inhibitors is with other tyrosine kinase inhibitors such as bosutinib, ponatinib, dasatinib or nilotinib. Clinical evidence shows that asciminib works better than bosutinib and could therefore be an option.

Other innovations
Inhibitors of interleukin-1 receptor-associated kinase 1/4 ((IRAK1/4 inhibitors) are being explored as possible agents in the management of imatinib-resistant cases and may offer a useful option, especially if combined with TKIs.[20]

Transplant therapies[14]

Allogenic haemopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) should be considered in patients resistant to tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy in chronic phase CML and cases of advanced CML. Such consideration should include whether the advanced phase presented while the patient was on or off TKI therapy, comorbidities, age, prior therapy, and analysis of BCR-ABL mutation profile.

Prognosis for long-term survival with CML has improved over the years:

  • The introduction of TKIs has greatly improved the prognoses for CML patients.[21] Since their use as first-line therapy for CML, five-year survival has risen from 33% to over 90%. Ten-year survival has risen from 11% to 84%, and complete cytogenetic response occurs in 70% to 90% of patients. Individuals diagnosed with chronic phase CML are expected to reach normal or near-normal life expectancy.[14]
  • Mutational analysis may also improve prognosis by assisting in the identification of mutations associated with TKI resistance.[14]

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Further reading and references

  1. Granatowicz A, Piatek CI, Moschiano E, et al; An Overview and Update of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia for Primary Care Physicians. Korean J Fam Med. 2015 Sep36(5):197-202. doi: 10.4082/kjfm.2015.36.5.197. Epub 2015 Sep 18.

  2. Deininger MW; Diagnosing and managing advanced chronic myeloid leukemia. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2015:e381-8. doi: 10.14694/EdBook_AM.2015.35.e381.

  3. Chronic myeloid leukaemia: European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up (2020)

  4. Hsu WL, Preston DL, Soda M, et al; The incidence of leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma among atomic bomb survivors: 1950-2001. Radiat Res. 2013 Mar179(3):361-82. doi: 10.1667/RR2892.1. Epub 2013 Feb 11.

  5. Jabbour E, Cortes JE, Kantarjian HM; Molecular monitoring in chronic myeloid leukemia: response to tyrosine kinase inhibitors and prognostic implications. Cancer. 2008 May 15112(10):2112-8.

  6. Leukemia, Chronic Myeloid, CML; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)

  7. Eiring AM, Khorashad JS, Morley K, et al; Advances in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. BMC Med. 2011 Aug 269:99.

  8. Hehlmann R, Hochhaus A, Baccarani M; Chronic myeloid leukaemia. Lancet. 2007 Jul 28370(9584):342-50.

  9. Druker BJ, Guilhot F, O'Brien SG, et al; Five-year follow-up of patients receiving imatinib for chronic myeloid leukemia. N Engl J Med. 2006 Dec 7355(23):2408-17.

  10. Kantarjian H, O'Brien S, Talpaz M, et al; Outcome of patients with Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myelogenous leukemia post-imatinib mesylate failure. Cancer. 2007 Apr 15109(8):1556-60.

  11. Kantarjian HM, Talpaz M, Giles F, et al; New insights into the pathophysiology of chronic myeloid leukemia and imatinib resistance. Ann Intern Med. 2006 Dec 19145(12):913-23.

  12. Quintas-Cardama A, Cortes JE; Chronic myeloid leukemia: diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Jul81(7):973-88.

  13. Ramirez P, DiPersio JF; Therapy options in imatinib failures. Oncologist. 2008 Apr13(4):424-34.

  14. Eden RE, Coviello JM; Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia

  15. O'Hare T, Eide CA, Deininger MW; New Bcr-Abl inhibitors in chronic myeloid leukemia: keeping resistance in check. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2008 Jun17(6):865-78.

  16. Dasatinib, nilotinib and imatinib for untreated chronic myeloid leukaemia; NICE Technology appraisal guidance, December 2016

  17. Guidance on the use of imatinib for chronic myeloid leukaemia; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, October 2003 - last updated January 2016

  18. Dasatinib, nilotinib and high-dose imatinib for treating imatinib-resistant or intolerant chronic myeloid leukaemia; NICE Technology appraisal guidance, December 2016

  19. Asciminib for treating chronic myeloid leukaemia after 2 or more tyrosine kinase inhibitors; NICE Technology appraisal guidance, August 2022

  20. Tanaka Y, Takeda R, Fukushima T, et al; Eliminating chronic myeloid leukemia stem cells by IRAK1/4 inhibitors. Nat Commun. 2022 Jan 1213(1):271. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-27928-8.

  21. Fava C, Rege-Cambrin G, Saglio G; The choice of first-line chronic myelogenous leukemia treatment. Ann Hematol. 2015 Apr94 Suppl 2:S123-31. doi: 10.1007/s00277-015-2321-3. Epub 2015 Mar 27.