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The World Health Organization (WHO) classification system is the most commonly used method to split acute lymphoblastic leukemia into distinct subtypes.
The French, American, and British (FAB) is another, older system, but it has mostly been replaced by laboratory tests, which allow more accurate classification.1
Based on the type of white blood cell (lymphocyte) affected, three main subtypes can be found:
A rare form of leukemia in which features of both acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are present in one cell. You may also hear this called acute biphenotypic leukemia or acute bilineal leukemia.
Leukemia subtypes can be further categorized according to mutations found in genes or chromosomes.
One well-known change that occurs in acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the formation of a Philadelphia chromosome by movement of genetic material within the chromosomes of leukemia cells. If this change is present, the leukemia is described as being Philadelphia positive.
Around 20−30% of patients with B-acute lymphoblastic leukemia have this change.2 This change does not affect non-cancer cells and is not inherited or passed on to your children.
The Philadelphia chromosome confers a sensitivity on acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells to drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which are used to treat this type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. If you or your child has Philadelphia-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia, you may be given a drug called imatinib. You can read more about this and other therapies on the treatment page.
1. American Cancer Society. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) subtypes and prognostic factors. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/acute-lymphocytic-leukemia/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-classified.html. Published Oct 17, 2018. Accessed Mar 29, 2021.
2. Cancer Research UK. Types. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/acute-lymphoblastic-leukaemia-all/types. Published May 10, 2018. Accessed Mar 29, 2021.