‘Acute’ means it progresses quickly; ‘myeloid’ refers to the type of white blood cell it affects.
As white blood cells are part of the body’s defences, or immune system, AML reduces the body’s ability to defend itself from infection.
In any cancer, including leukaemia, cells begin to develop abnormally. In AML, these abnormal changes take place in the blood stem cells, found in the bone marrow.
Blood stem cells can develop into different types of blood cell including:
- red blood cells
- white blood cells
- lymphocytes (a kind of white blood cell)
Usually, the stem cells make as many blood cells as we need to stay healthy. Blood cells don’t live very long – between a few hours to around three months – so we need our stem cells to create a constant supply of new ones.
In AML, this efficient system goes wrong. The stem cells start to produce too many blood cells, too quickly. These cells, known as blast cells, are immature; because they aren’t fully developed, they can’t do the job they were made for and they don’t die when they should.
Instead, these cells build up in the bone marrow and spread into the bloodstream. They can be carried by the blood to other areas of the body where they can interfere with the normal function of other cells.