Treatment of Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Different types of treatment are available for patients with adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Some treatments are standard and some are being tested in clinical trials. The treatment of adult ALL usually has two phases:
  • Remission induction therapy: This is the first phase of treatment. Its purpose is to kill the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. This puts the leukemia into remission.
  • Post-remission therapy: This is the second phase of treatment. It begins once the leukemia is in remission. The purpose of post-remission therapy is to kill any remaining leukemia cells that may not be active but could begin to regrow and cause a relapse. This phase is also called remission continuation therapy.

Central nervous system sanctuary therapy

Treatment called central nervous system sanctuary therapy is usually given during each phase of therapy. Because chemotherapy that is given by mouth or injected into a vein may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to find “sanctuary” (hide) in the CNS. Intrathecal chemotherapy and radiation therapy are able to reach leukemia cells in the CNS and are given to kill the leukemia cells and prevent the cancer from recurring (coming back). CNS sanctuary therapy is also called CNS prophylaxis. Following are the types of standard treatment for ALL:
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
  • Targeted therapy
  • Biologic therapy


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. It is of the following types: Systemic chemotherapy—When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body, it is called systemic chemotherapy. Intrathecal chemotherapy—When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, it is called Intrathecal chemotherapy. Intrathecal chemotherapy may be used to treat adult ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. Regional chemotherapy—When chemotherapy is directly placed to an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, it is called regional chemotherapy. The drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas. Combination chemotherapy—is treatment using more than one anticancer drug. CNS sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis—When chemotherapy is used to prevent cancer from spreading to the brain and spinal cord, it is called central nervous system sanctuary therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. External radiation therapy may be used to treat adult ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. When used this way, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant is a method of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into the body’s blood cells.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Targeted therapy drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors are used to treat some types of adult ALL. These drugs block the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (blasts) than the body needs. Two of the drugs used are imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) and dasatinib.

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Clinical Trials

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment. Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.


During follow-up, some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging. Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups. Contact us to request an appointment with one of our medical oncologists to discuss your treatment options or obtain a second opinion on your diagnosis of adult ALL.