The diagnosis of leukemia is confirmed by finding a disproportionate number of leukocytes in tissue obtained from a bone marrow biopsy. The course of treatment is based upon the type of cell affected, the progression of the disease, and the age of the patient. Some slowly progressing forms may require no treatment. Improved treatments have increased survival from some types of leukemia considerably.
Treatment may include chemotherapy with anticancer drugs, radiation therapy, blood and plasma transfusions, and bone marrow transplantation. In bone marrow transplantation, healthy bone marrow (either donated by a closely matched donor or treated marrow from the patient) is infused into the patient after the patient has undergone a course of marrow-destroying very high dose chemotherapy. Recent studies have indicated that blood from a newborn infant's umbilical cord and placenta (called cord blood) can be used effectively instead of marrow transplants in some leukemias. Biological therapy (sometimes called immunotherapy) is also used. Biological therapies include monoclonal antibodies; interferons; maturation drugs, such as all-trans retinoic acid; and tyrosine kinase inhibtors, such as imantinib mesylate (also known as STI-571 and Gleevec). These therapies may enhance the body's natural reaction to leukemia by bolstering the immune response, may inhibit the gene that drives cell proliferation, or may encourage maturation of immature leukemic cells or reproduction of needed healthy blood elements.