What Is Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)?

Cancer starts when cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancer. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer. To learn more about cancer and how it starts and grows, see What Is Cancer?

Leukemias are cancers that start in cells that would normally develop into different types of blood cells. Most often, leukemia starts in early forms of white blood cells, but some leukemias start in other blood cell types. There are several types of leukemia, which are divided based mainly on whether the leukemia is acute (fast growing) or chronic (slower growing), and whether it starts in myeloid cells or lymphoid cells.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) starts in the bone marrow (the soft inner part of certain bones, where new blood cells are made), but most often it quickly moves into the blood, as well. It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles.

Most often, AML develops from cells that would turn into white blood cells (other than lymphocytes), but sometimes AML develops in other types of blood-forming cells. The different types of AML are discussed in Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Subtypes and Prognostic Factors.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) has many other names, including acute myelocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, and acute non-lymphocytic leukemia.

Normal bone marrow, blood, and lymph tissue

To understand leukemia, it helps to know about the blood and lymph systems.

Bone marrow

Bone marrow is the soft inner part of certain bones. It is made up of blood-forming cells, fat cells, and supporting tissues. A small fraction of the blood-forming cells are blood stem cells.

Inside the bone marrow, blood stem cells develop into new blood cells. During this process, the cells become either lymphocytes (a kind of white blood cell) or other blood-forming cells, which are types of myeloid cells. Myeloid cells can develop into red blood cells, white blood cells (other than lymphocytes), or platelets. These myeloid cells are the ones that are abnormal in AML.

Types of blood cells

There are 3 main types of blood cells:

  • Red blood cells (RBCs) carry oxygen from the lungs to all other tissues in the body, and take carbon dioxide back to the lungs to be removed.
  • Platelets are actually cell fragments made by a type of bone marrow cell called the megakaryocyte. Platelets are important in stopping bleeding. They help plug up holes in blood vessels caused by cuts or bruises.
  • White blood cells (WBCs) help the body fight infections.

There are different types of WBCs:

  • Granulocytes are mature WBCs that develop from myeloblasts, a type of blood-forming cell in the bone marrow. Granulocytes have granules that show up as spots under the microscope. These granules contain enzymes and other substances that can destroy germs, such as bacteria. The 3 types of granulocytes – neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils – are distinguished by the size and color of their granules.
  • Monocytes are WBCs that develop from blood-forming monoblasts in the bone marrow. After circulating in the bloodstream for about a day, monocytes enter body tissues to become macrophages, which can destroy some germs by surrounding and digesting them. Macrophages also help lymphocytes recognize germs and make antibodies to fight them.
  • Lymphocytes are mature WBCs that develop from lymphoblasts in the bone marrow. Lymphocytes are the main cells that make up lymph tissue, a major part of the immune system. Lymph tissue is found in lymph nodes, the thymus (a small organ behind the breast bone), the spleen, the tonsils and adenoids, and is scattered throughout the digestive and respiratory systems and the bone marrow. The 2 main types of lymphocytes are B cell and T cells.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Kolitz JE. Overview of acute myeloid leukemia in adults. UpToDate. 2018. Accessed at www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-acute-myeloid-leukemia-in-adults on June 12, 2018.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment. 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/hp/adult-aml-treatment-pdq on June 12, 2018.

Raffel GD, Cerny J. Chapter 106: Molecular Biology of Acute Leukemias. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Last Medical Review: August 21, 2018 Last Revised: August 21, 2018

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.