Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). One of the distinguishing characteristics of acute leukemic cancer cells is the high rate at which they grow and multiply. Chemotherapy uses high-potency drugs that target quickly dividing cells and destroy them. Some of the healthy cells (such as hair follicles and cells in the lining of the mouth and intestines) are also quickly dividing cells, so they are killed as well. Their destruction results in some of the side effects that many patients experience.
AML is usually treated with two or three anti-cancer drugs (combination chemotherapy):
- Cytarabine (ara-C)
- Daunorubicin (Daunomycin) or the very similar drug idarubicin (idamycin). Results from this type of therapy vary tremendously and depend on factors such as cytogenetics, history of abnormal blood counts and age of the patient. Patients whose prognosis is judged to be poor with this standard therapy are given the opportunity to participate in clinical studies of new drugs.
Patients who have been diagnosed with the acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) subtype will also receive all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic trioxide. This treatment combination usually results in remission for a high percentage of patients with APL.