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Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version
Last Modified: 04/19/2013

General Information About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Incidence and Mortality
Related Summaries

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in the United States in 2013:[1]

  • New cases: 15,680.
  • Deaths: 4,580.

CLL is a disorder of morphologically mature but immunologically less mature lymphocytes and is manifested by progressive accumulation of these cells in the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic tissues.[2] In this disorder, lymphocyte counts in the blood are usually greater than or equal to 5,000/mm3 with a characteristic immunophenotype (CD5- and CD23-positive B cells).[3,4] As assays have become more sensitive for detecting monoclonal B-CLL–like cells in peripheral blood, researchers have detected a monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis (MBL) in 3% of adults older than 40 years and 6% in adults older than 60 years.[5] Such early detection and diagnosis may falsely suggest improved survival for the group and may unnecessarily worry or result in therapy for some patients who would have remained undiagnosed in their lifetime, a circumstance known in the literature as overdiagnosis or pseudodisease.[6,7]

In two selected series of more than 900 patients followed prospectively for a median of 5 to 7 years, overt CLL requiring chemotherapy occurred in 7% of patients.[5,8] In a database analysis and for up to 77 months before diagnosis, almost all patients with a diagnosis of CLL had prediagnostic B-cell clones that were identified in peripheral blood when available.[4,9]

For patients with progressing CLL, treatment with conventional doses of chemotherapy is not curative; selected patients treated with allogeneic stem cell transplantation have achieved prolonged disease-free survival.[10-14] Antileukemic therapy is frequently unnecessary in uncomplicated early disease.[15] The median survival for all patients ranges from 8 to 12 years in older trials with data from the 1970s through the 1990s.[15,16] There is, however, a large variation in survival among individual patients, ranging from several months to a normal life expectancy. Treatment must be individualized based on the clinical behavior of the disease.[17]

As found in one report, CLL occurs primarily in middle-aged and elderly adults, with increasing frequency in successive decades of life.[18] The clinical course of this disease progresses from an indolent lymphocytosis without other evident disease to one of generalized lymphatic enlargement with concomitant pancytopenia. Complications of pancytopenia, including hemorrhage and infection, represent a major cause of death in these patients.[19] Immunological aberrations, including Coombs-positive hemolytic anemia, immune thrombocytopenia, and depressed immunoglobulin levels may all complicate the management of CLL.[20] Prognostic factors that may help predict clinical outcome include cytogenetic subgroup, immunoglobulin mutational status, ZAP-70, and CD38.[2,21-29] (Refer to the Prognostic Factors section in the Stage Information for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia section of this summary for more information.) Patients who develop an aggressive high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma, usually diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and termed a Richter transformation, have a poor prognosis.[30] Patients with CLL are also at increased risk for other malignancies, even before therapy.[31]

Confusion with other diseases may be avoided by determination of cell surface markers. CLL lymphocytes coexpress the B-cell antigens CD19 and CD20 along with the T-cell antigen CD5.[32] This coexpression only occurs in one other disease entity, mantle cell lymphoma. CLL B cells express relatively low levels of surface-membrane immunoglobulin (compared with normal peripheral blood B cells) and a single light chain (kappa or lambda).[15] CLL is diagnosed by an absolute increase in lymphocytosis and/or bone marrow infiltration coupled with the characteristic features of morphology and immunophenotype, which confirm the characteristic clonal population.

The differential diagnosis must exclude hairy cell leukemia and Waldenström macroglobulinemia. (Refer to the PDQ summaries on Hairy Cell Leukemia and Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment for more information.) Waldenström macroglobulinemia has a natural history and therapeutic options similar to CLL, with the exception of hyperviscosity syndrome associated with macroglobulinemia as a result of elevated immunoglobulin M. Prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL) is a rare entity characterized by excessive prolymphocytes in the blood with a typical phenotype that is positive for CD19, CD20, and surface-membrane immunoglobulin and negative for CD5. These patients demonstrate splenomegaly and poor response to low-dose or high-dose chemotherapy.[15,33]

Cladribine (2-chlorodeoxyadenosine) appears to be an active agent (60% complete remission rate) for patients with de novo B-cell prolymphocytic leukemia.[34][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv] Alemtuzumab (campath-1H), an anti-CD52 humanized monoclonal antibody, has been used for 76 patients with T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia after failure of prior chemotherapy (usually pentostatin or cladribine) with a 51% response rate (95% confidence interval, 40%–63%) and median time to progression of 4.5 months (range, 0.1–45.4 months).[35][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiv] These response rates have been confirmed by other investigators.[36] Patients with CLL who show prolymphocytoid transformation maintain the classic CLL phenotype and have a worse prognosis than PLL patients.

Large granular lymphocytic leukemia is characterized by lymphocytosis with a natural killer cell immunophenotype (CD2, CD16, and CD56) or a T-cell immunophenotype (CD2, CD3, and CD8).[37-39] These patients often have neutropenia and a history of rheumatoid arthritis. The natural history is indolent, often marked by anemia and splenomegaly. This condition appears to fit into the clinical spectrum of Felty syndrome.[40] Therapy includes low doses of oral cyclophosphamide or methotrexate, cyclosporine, and treatment of the bacterial infections acquired during severe neutropenia.[37,39,41,42]

Related Summaries

Other PDQ summaries containing information about CLL include the following:

  1. American Cancer Society.: Cancer Facts and Figures 2013. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2013. Available online. Last accessed January 10, 2014. 

  2. Dighiero G, Hamblin TJ: Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Lancet 371 (9617): 1017-29, 2008.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  3. Hallek M, Cheson BD, Catovsky D, et al.: Guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia: a report from the International Workshop on Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia updating the National Cancer Institute-Working Group 1996 guidelines. Blood 111 (12): 5446-56, 2008.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  4. Shanafelt TD, Kay NE, Jenkins G, et al.: B-cell count and survival: differentiating chronic lymphocytic leukemia from monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis based on clinical outcome. Blood 113 (18): 4188-96, 2009.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  5. Rawstron AC, Bennett FL, O'Connor SJ, et al.: Monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 359 (6): 575-83, 2008.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  6. Dighiero G: Monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis--a frequent premalignant condition. N Engl J Med 359 (6): 638-40, 2008.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  7. Fazi C, Scarfò L, Pecciarini L, et al.: General population low-count CLL-like MBL persists over time without clinical progression, although carrying the same cytogenetic abnormalities of CLL. Blood 118 (25): 6618-25, 2011.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  8. Shanafelt TD, Kay NE, Rabe KG, et al.: Brief report: natural history of individuals with clinically recognized monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis compared with patients with Rai 0 chronic lymphocytic leukemia. J Clin Oncol 27 (24): 3959-63, 2009.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  9. Landgren O, Albitar M, Ma W, et al.: B-cell clones as early markers for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 360 (7): 659-67, 2009.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  10. Ritgen M, Stilgenbauer S, von Neuhoff N, et al.: Graft-versus-leukemia activity may overcome therapeutic resistance of chronic lymphocytic leukemia with unmutated immunoglobulin variable heavy-chain gene status: implications of minimal residual disease measurement with quantitative PCR. Blood 104 (8): 2600-2, 2004.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  11. Moreno C, Villamor N, Colomer D, et al.: Allogeneic stem-cell transplantation may overcome the adverse prognosis of unmutated VH gene in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. J Clin Oncol 23 (15): 3433-8, 2005.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  12. Khouri IF, Keating MJ, Saliba RM, et al.: Long-term follow-up of patients with CLL treated with allogeneic hematopoietic transplantation. Cytotherapy 4 (3): 217-21, 2002.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  13. Doney KC, Chauncey T, Appelbaum FR, et al.: Allogeneic related donor hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Bone Marrow Transplant 29 (10): 817-23, 2002.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  14. Pavletic SZ, Khouri IF, Haagenson M, et al.: Unrelated donor marrow transplantation for B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia after using myeloablative conditioning: results from the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant research. J Clin Oncol 23 (24): 5788-94, 2005.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  15. Rozman C, Montserrat E: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 333 (16): 1052-7, 1995.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  16. Wierda WG, O'Brien S, Wang X, et al.: Prognostic nomogram and index for overall survival in previously untreated patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Blood 109 (11): 4679-85, 2007.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  17. Montserrat E: CLL therapy: progress at last! Blood 105 (1): 2-3, 2005. 

  18. Catovsky D, Fooks J, Richards S: Prognostic factors in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia: the importance of age, sex and response to treatment in survival. A report from the MRC CLL 1 trial. MRC Working Party on Leukaemia in Adults. Br J Haematol 72 (2): 141-9, 1989.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  19. Anaissie EJ, Kontoyiannis DP, O'Brien S, et al.: Infections in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia treated with fludarabine. Ann Intern Med 129 (7): 559-66, 1998.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  20. Mauro FR, Foa R, Cerretti R, et al.: Autoimmune hemolytic anemia in chronic lymphocytic leukemia: clinical, therapeutic, and prognostic features. Blood 95 (9): 2786-92, 2000.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  21. Döhner H, Stilgenbauer S, Benner A, et al.: Genomic aberrations and survival in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 343 (26): 1910-6, 2000.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  22. Hamblin TJ, Davis Z, Gardiner A, et al.: Unmutated Ig V(H) genes are associated with a more aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Blood 94 (6): 1848-54, 1999.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  23. Damle RN, Wasil T, Fais F, et al.: Ig V gene mutation status and CD38 expression as novel prognostic indicators in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Blood 94 (6): 1840-7, 1999.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  24. Rosenwald A, Alizadeh AA, Widhopf G, et al.: Relation of gene expression phenotype to immunoglobulin mutation genotype in B cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. J Exp Med 194 (11): 1639-47, 2001.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  25. Klein U, Tu Y, Stolovitzky GA, et al.: Gene expression profiling of B cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia reveals a homogeneous phenotype related to memory B cells. J Exp Med 194 (11): 1625-38, 2001.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  26. Orchard JA, Ibbotson RE, Davis Z, et al.: ZAP-70 expression and prognosis in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Lancet 363 (9403): 105-11, 2004.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  27. Rassenti LZ, Huynh L, Toy TL, et al.: ZAP-70 compared with immunoglobulin heavy-chain gene mutation status as a predictor of disease progression in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. N Engl J Med 351 (9): 893-901, 2004.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  28. Kröber A, Bloehdorn J, Hafner S, et al.: Additional genetic high-risk features such as 11q deletion, 17p deletion, and V3-21 usage characterize discordance of ZAP-70 and VH mutation status in chronic lymphocytic leukemia. J Clin Oncol 24 (6): 969-75, 2006.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  29. Byrd JC, Gribben JG, Peterson BL, et al.: Select high-risk genetic features predict earlier progression following chemoimmunotherapy with fludarabine and rituximab in chronic lymphocytic leukemia: justification for risk-adapted therapy. J Clin Oncol 24 (3): 437-43, 2006.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  30. Tsimberidou AM, Keating MJ: Richter syndrome: biology, incidence, and therapeutic strategies. Cancer 103 (2): 216-28, 2005.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  31. Tsimberidou AM, Wen S, McLaughlin P, et al.: Other malignancies in chronic lymphocytic leukemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma. J Clin Oncol 27 (6): 904-10, 2009.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  32. DiGiuseppe JA, Borowitz MJ: Clinical utility of flow cytometry in the chronic lymphoid leukemias. Semin Oncol 25 (1): 6-10, 1998.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  33. Melo JV, Catovsky D, Galton DA: The relationship between chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and prolymphocytic leukaemia. I. Clinical and laboratory features of 300 patients and characterization of an intermediate group. Br J Haematol 63 (2): 377-87, 1986.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  34. Saven A, Lee T, Schlutz M, et al.: Major activity of cladribine in patients with de novo B-cell prolymphocytic leukemia. J Clin Oncol 15 (1): 37-43, 1997.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  35. Keating MJ, Cazin B, Coutré S, et al.: Campath-1H treatment of T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia in patients for whom at least one prior chemotherapy regimen has failed. J Clin Oncol 20 (1): 205-13, 2002.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  36. Dearden CE, Matutes E, Catovsky D: Alemtuzumab in T-cell malignancies. Med Oncol 19 (Suppl): S27-32, 2002.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  37. Sokol L, Loughran TP Jr: Large granular lymphocyte leukemia. Oncologist 11 (3): 263-73, 2006.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  38. Semenzato G, Zambello R, Starkebaum G, et al.: The lymphoproliferative disease of granular lymphocytes: updated criteria for diagnosis. Blood 89 (1): 256-60, 1997.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  39. Lamy T, Loughran TP Jr: How I treat LGL leukemia. Blood 117 (10): 2764-74, 2011.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  40. Bowman SJ, Sivakumaran M, Snowden N, et al.: The large granular lymphocyte syndrome with rheumatoid arthritis. Immunogenetic evidence for a broader definition of Felty's syndrome. Arthritis Rheum 37 (9): 1326-30, 1994.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  41. Loughran TP Jr, Kidd PG, Starkebaum G: Treatment of large granular lymphocyte leukemia with oral low-dose methotrexate. Blood 84 (7): 2164-70, 1994.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  42. Dhodapkar MV, Li CY, Lust JA, et al.: Clinical spectrum of clonal proliferations of T-large granular lymphocytes: a T-cell clonopathy of undetermined significance? Blood 84 (5): 1620-7, 1994.  [PUBMED Abstract]