Tests for AML
A combination of blood and bone marrow tests will help your doctor confirm the diagnosis and work out the subtype of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) you have.
Learn more about these tests:
- Blood tests
- Bone marrow tests
- Further tests
Your doctor will take a sample of blood and send it to a laboratory for a full blood count (FBC). This will show whether leukaemia cells are present and whether the levels of the different types of blood cells are different from what would be expected in a healthy person.
Blood tests will also check for:
- lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), an enzyme that is released into the blood when cells are damaged or destroyed. LDH levels are usually raised in people with AML
- infections, such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or hepatitis.
Blood cells develop in your bone marrow, so your doctor will check your bone marrow for signs of leukaemia. Samples of bone marrow are usually collected by either aspiration or biopsy:
- bone marrow aspiration – the doctor uses a thin needle to remove a small amount of fluid (aspirate) from the bone marrow, usually from the hipbone (pelvic bone)
- bone marrow biopsy or trephine – the doctor uses a slightly larger needle to remove a small amount of bone and marrow, usually from the hipbone.
You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area. To help you relax, you may be offered a light sedation that you inhale (a mild pain reliever known as “the green whistle”) or is injected through a small plastic tube inserted into a vein (cannula). You may feel drowsy after the procedure, so ask someone to drive you home. It takes up to 30 minutes to prepare for a biopsy, but the actual procedure takes only a few minutes.
The bone marrow samples are sent to a laboratory where they will be tested to work out the subtype of AML and any gene changes that may have occurred. Tests may include:
This test looks for certain markers that are on the surface of leukaemia cells. Looking at the patterns of these markers can help your doctor confirm that the leukaemia is AML (and not ALL) and to work out the subtype.
Cancer changes the genes of affected cells. These gene changes are not the same as genes passed through families. The fault is only in the leukaemia cells. Tests looking for changes in the genes involved in leukaemia are becoming more standard. They help doctors decide on suitable treatment options and work out the chance of the AML coming back (recurring) after a period of improvement (remission).
Tests known as FISH (fluorescence in situ hybridisation), PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and NGS (next generation sequencing) are used to look for the most common gene changes in AML. A PCR test may also be used to check how well treatment has worked and if further treatment is needed.
You may have other tests to find out more about the AML, your general health and how well your organs are working. Imaging tests may include a chest x-ray, a computerised tomography (CT) scan, ultrasound and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Other tests may include:
If a stem cell transplant is a treatment option, a blood or bone marrow sample will be tested for human leukocyte antigen (HLA). HLA is found on most cells in your body – it helps your immune system recognise which cells belong in your body. Usually, a stem cell transplant can only go ahead if the donor is a close match to your HLA type. This is why your close relatives may also have an HLA test to see if they are a match.
Gated heart pool scan
This scan shows how well the heart is working and may be used to check that you are fit enough for chemotherapy. A small amount of your blood is taken, mixed with some radioactive material and injected back into your body. A special camera takes pictures of the blood being pumped by your heart. The scan usually takes about an hour.
Before having scans, tell the doctor if you have any allergies or have had a reaction to contrast (dye) during previous scans. You should also let them know if you have diabetes or kidney disease, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Podcast: Tests and Cancer
Dr Jonathan Sillar, Haematologist, Calvary Mater Newcastle Hospital; Dr Scott Dunkley, Haematologist, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse; Sharon Frazer, Consumer; Dr Robin Gasiorowski, Staff Specialist, Haematology, Concord Hospital; Prof Angela Hong, Radiation Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and Clinical Professor, The University of Sydney; Yvonne King, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Heather Mackay, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Haematology, Westmead Hospital; Katelin Mayer, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Outreach Team, Nelune Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
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