Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

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.