A Snapshot of Leukemia

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Incidence and Mortality

Leukemia, the second most common blood cancer after lymphoma, includes several diseases. The four major types are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Although leukemia occurs most often in older adults, it is among the most common childhood cancers. ALL accounts for approximately 75 percent of all childhood leukemias. By contrast, the most common types of leukemia in adults are AML and CLL, followed by ALL and CML.

The overall incidence rates for leukemia have increased on average 0.2 percent each year from 2002 to 2011, while overall mortality rates have fallen an average of 1 percent each year from 2001 to 2010. Incidence and mortality rates are higher in whites than in people of other racial and ethnic groups. Leukemia is slightly more common in men than women.

Specific risk factors for leukemia depend on the type of leukemia. In general, increased risk is associated with being male, smoking, exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene, exposure to radiation, past treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, having certain inherited or genetic disorders, having certain blood disorders, and having a family history of leukemia. There are no standard screening tests for leukemia. Depending on the type of leukemia, standard treatments include watchful waiting, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplant.

Assuming that incidence and survival rates follow recent trends, it is estimated that $5.9 billion1 will be spent on care for patients with leukemia in the United States in 2014.

Line graphs of U.S. Leukemia Incidence and mortality per 100,000 by race and ethnicity from 1991-2011.  In 2011, whites have the highest incidence, followed African Americans, Hispanics,  Asians/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaska Natives. In 2011, whites have the highest mortality, followed by African Americans, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaska natives.

Source: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and the National Center for Health Statistics. Additional statistics and charts are available at the SEER Web site.

NCI’s Investment in Leukemia Research

To learn more about the research NCI conducts and supports in leukemia, visit the NCI Funded Research Portfolio (NFRP). The NFRP includes information about research grants, contract awards, and intramural research projects funded by NCI. When exploring this information, it should be noted that approximately half of the NCI budget supports basic research that may not be specific to one type of cancer. By its nature, basic research cuts across many disease areas, contributing to our knowledge of the underlying biology of cancer and enabling the research community to make advances against many cancer types. For these reasons, the funding levels reported in NFRP may not definitively report all research relevant to a given category.

Pie chart of NCI Leukemia Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2013.  Biology, 24%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 10%.  Prevention, 3%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 5%.  Treatment, 44%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 9%.  Scientific model systems, 5%.

Source: NCI Funded Research Portfolio. Only projects with assigned common scientific outline area codes are included. A description of relevant research projects can be found on the NCI Funded Research Portfolio Web site.

Other NCI programs and activities relevant to leukemia include:

Selected Advances in Leukemia Research

  • A screen of FDA-approved drugs, small molecules, and natural products identified a 50-year-old antipsychotic medication called perphenazine, as a drug that can induce apoptosis in zebrafish, mouse, and human cell models of T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), suggesting therapeutic potential in patients. Published January 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • DNA sequencing of hairy cell leukemia (a rare subtype of CLL) samples revealed a high prevalence of mutations in the oncogene encoding the kinase MEK1, suggesting potential new treatment strategies targeting MEK1. Published January 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A methylation “signature” (chemical changes in DNA that turn genes on or off) in the DNA of blood-forming stem cells was able to predict which AML patients were likely to benefit more from chemotherapy and have better overall survival. Published February 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • In preclinical studies, the investigational agent MLN4924 disrupted an important cell survival and chemoresistance pathway in CLL cells. Published March 2014. [PubMed Abstract]

Additional Resources for Leukemia

  • Posted: November 5, 2014