What is AML and how does it affect children?

Updated 11 Aug 2017

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a type of cancer that affects cells in the bone marrow that are responsible for making blood cells.

‘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)
  • platelets

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.

> Find out more about childhood leukaemia and the immune system

What causes childhood AML?

You and your family aren’t alone: around 140 young people are affected by AML each year.

Age

AML in children is quite rare. AML is most common in adults, particularly in later life.

Gender

Broadly speaking, boys and girls are affected equally by AML.

Family history

AML isn’t passed from parent to child. It’s rare for a family to have more than one generation affected by AML.

Other risks and causes

There’s nothing you could have done to have prevented your child from developing this condition. In most cases, we don’t know what causes AML, although the following situations may be linked with an increased risk:

  • receiving anti-cancer drugs to treat other forms of cancer – known as therapy-related AML; this rarely affects children
  • having Down’s syndrome: children with this condition are more likely to develop a particular type of AML.
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