Leukaemia – The Peripheral Smear

Differentiating Acute and Chronic Leukaemia

Leucocytosis with anaemia is a feature of acute and chronic leukaemia. It is possible to differentiate acute and chronic leukaemia by looking at the peripheral smear. Patients with acute leukaemia often have thrombocytopenia. Patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia may have normal or low platelet counts. Patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia have normal or high platelet counts.

Haemoglobin Platelets Peripheral Smear
Acute Leukaemia Low Low Immature forms other than blasts not seen
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia Low or Normal Low or Normal Normal looking lymphocytes
Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia Low or Normal Normal or High Immature leucocytes, all phases of leucocyte maturation seen

The phases of maturation of myeloid cells (from the least to the msot mature) are blasts, promyelocytes, myelocytes, metamyelocytes, band form and mature granulocyte (see Myeloid Precursors Morphlogy). The peripheral smear from patients with acute leukaemia shows blasts (or promyelocytes) and mature neutrophils. Very few cells, if any, with maturity between the two stages that occupy two ends of the spectrum are seen. Patients with with chronic myeloid leukaemia have cells with all stages of maturity between blasts and mature granulocytes. The peripheral smear in patients with acute leukaemia shows mature lymphocytes.

The explanation for the different peripheral smear findings in acute leukaemia and chronic myeloid leukaemia is in the pathogenesis of the two diseases. Chronic myeloid is a myeloprolferative disease. It is a clonal disease. The stem cells of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia carry the BCR-ABL mutation. This mutation results in clonal expansion. All blood cells in a patient arise from one clone. The release of cells from the bone marrow of patients with CML is not limited to mature granulocytes. Some cells leave the marrow and result in leucocytosis.

The marrow of a patient of acute leukaemia has two clone one malignant one normal. The malignant clone can not differentiate beyond the stage of a blast (or promyelocyte). It slowly effaces the normal clone. The mature granulocytes seen in the peripheral smear arise from the normal clone and the blasts from the malignant clone. The normal clone releases cells only when they mature to the stage of band cell or beyond. The malignant clone can not mature beyond the stage of a blast. The stages between blasts and band forms/mature granulocytes are not seen in peripheral smear of acute leukaemia.

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