Hyperleucocytosis and Leukostasis

Leukostasis is a oncological emergency seen in patients with leukaemia who present with pronounced leucocytosis. It is seen in about 5-30% of adult acute leukaemia cases. It results from slugging of microcirculation by leucocytes.  It is associated with a mortality of 20-40%.

Pathogenesis of Leukostasis

Manifestations of leukostasis result from impaired circulation in the affected vascular bed. Leukocytosis impairs circulation because of

  1. Increased viscosity
  2. Formation of intravascular leukocyte aggregates (white bland thrombi)
  3. Increased adhesion of blasts to the endothelium

Cells increase the viscosity of blood hampering flow through microcirculation. Pliability of blood cells is important for maintaining blood flow in microvasculature. The biconcave shape of the erythrocytes provides them with deformability allowing smooth passage through the microvasculature. Leukocytes are less pliable than erythrocytes.  Normally the number of leucocytes is a small fraction of the number of erythrocytes. The contribution of leucocytes to blood viscosity in minimal.

Blood viscosity increases with leucocytosis. The increase is related to the leucocyte count, size of the leukocytes and the deformability of the leucocytes. Blasts are less deformable than mature cells. Myeloblasts are larger and less deformable than lymphoblasts. Cells of the monoblastic series are the least deformable. Lymphocytes are the smallest and have the least impact on the viscosity amongst all leucocytes.

Blasts secrete cytokines like IL-1β  and TNF-β. These lead to up regulation of adhesion molecules like ICAM-1, VCAM-1 and E-selectin that increases the adhesion of blasts to the endothelium. Adhesions of blasts to microvasculature further diminish blood flow.

The vascular beds most commonly affected are the lung, CNS and the eye. Tissue hypoxia resulting from impaired circulation is believed to contribute to elevated LDH seen in acute leukaemias. 

Clinical Features

About 5-13% of acute myeloid leukaemia and 10-30% of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia have hyperleukocytosis. The symptoms of leukostasis are related to the ischaemia in the affected circulatory bed. The commonest vascular beds affected and the symptoms attributable to these beds are listed below.

Organ Manifestation
Brain Stupor
Eyes Blurring of vision
Lungs Dyspnoea
Kidney Azoaemia
Heart Arrhythmia
Penis Priapsim

Examination of the fundus shows papilledema, blurred disc margins, dilated blood vessels, and retinal haemorrhages.

The leukocyte count  at which symptoms develop depends on the type of leukaemia. Symptoms develop at the lowest counts in acute myeloid leukaemia. Patients of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia may not have symptoms of hyperleukocytosis at leucocyte counts as high as 400X109/L. Leukostasis is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

Diagnosis

Leukostasis is clinical diagnosis of exclusion. It should be considered in any patients with lung or CNS symptoms who has hyperleukocyosis. Hyperleukocytosis has been variably defined as a count of 50X109/L or 100X109/L. Symptoms are likely to occur at lower counts in patients with acute myeloblastic leukaemia particularly when there is a monocytoid component. Patients with chronic lymphoblastic leukaemia tolerate counts as high as 400X109/L without symptoms. The conditions that can mimic leukostasis include

  1. Pulmonary infection
  2. Pulmonary embolism
  3. Pulmonary oedema
  4. Pulmonary haemorrhage
  5. Transfusion-related acute lung injury  is blood products have been transfused
  6. CNS infections – meningitis and encephalitis
  7. Conditions causing acute mental status change

The x-ray findings include diffuse interstitial or alveolar infiltrates. It can be normal in early stages. Examination of the fundus is important.

Treatment

Leukostasis is associated with a mortality of 20-40%. The treatment of leukostatsis is to rapidly reduce the leukocyte count. Three methods of rapidly reducing leucocyte counts are induction chemotherapy, leukocytopheresis or low dose chemotherapy. Each of these methods are supported by theoretical arguments. Induction chemotherapy is the definitive therapy for leukaemia. Whether leukocytopheresis or hydroxyurea add to the benefit of induction chemotherapy is not clear. The use of hydroxyurea and leukocytopheresis is dictated by the experience of the treating centre. The procedures are usually resorted to with the belief that induction therapy with a very high leucocyte count may increase the risk of tumour lysis. 

Leukocytopheresis: Leukocytopheresis is used because it rapidly brings down the leucocyte count without causing lysis of blasts. It has the theoretical advantage of reducing the risk of tumour lysis and reducing mortality. This has never been proven in clinical trials. Two procedures needed about 12-24 hour apart. Leukocytopheresis is indicated in

  1. Symptomatic patients with AML with leucocyte counts more than 50X109/L and ALL with counts more than 150X109/L.
  2. Asymptomatic patients with AML and leucocyte  counts >100 X 109/L
  3. Asymptomatic patients with ALL with leucocyte counts >300 X 109/L
  4. CML patients who are symptomatic with leucocyte counts greater than 150X109/L,
  5. CLL patients who are symptomatic with leucocyte counts greater than 500X109/L. 
  6. It should not be performed in patients with acute promyelocytic leukaemia symptomatic or asymtomatic

The procedure involves insertion of a catheter. This may be associated with an increased risk of bleeding as these patients have thrombocytopenia.

Low Dose Chemotherapy: Like leukocytopheresis the value of low dose chemotherapy has not been proven. The following interventions may be used (with leukocytopheresis)

  1. Acute myeloid leukaemia should be treated with hydroxyurea in a dose of 50-100mg/Kg. It may be administered as a single or multiple doses.
  2. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia may be treated with steroids with or without vincristine. 

Induction chemotherapy: Induction chemotherapy is the definitive therapy for acute leukaemia. High counts are associated with a higher risk of tumour lysis resulting in an apprehensions of starting chemotherapy in patients with very high leucocyte counts.

Other measures: Cranial irradiation and dexamethasone has been used in patients with CNS symptoms. Blood transfusions can increase viscosity and may worsen symptoms of leukostasis. One needs to be conservative about red cell transfusions till the leukocyte counts become normal. Transfusions in patients with symptoms attributable to anaemia should not be held back. 

 

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