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Oncologist. 2006 Jul-Aug;11(7):780-9.

Hairy cell leukemia: an elusive but treatable disease.

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  • 1Duke University Medical Center, Division of Hematology/Oncology & Bone Marrow Transplant, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.


Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a unique chronic lymphoproliferative disorder that can mimic or coexist with other clonal hematologic disorders and has been associated with autoimmune disorders. It should be entertained as an alternative diagnosis in patients with cytopenias being assigned the diagnosis of aplastic anemia, hypoplastic myelodysplastic syndrome, atypical chronic lymphocytic leukemia, B-prolymphocytic leukemia, or idiopathic myelofibrosis. Causative etiology or molecular defects remain unclear, although nonspecific chromosomal and molecular changes have been described. The typical presentation is that of a middle-aged man with an incidental finding of pancytopenia, splenomegaly, and inaspirable bone marrow. Treatment with a purine analogue, cladribine or pentostatin, results in extremely high, durable, overall, and complete response rates, although resistance and relapses do occur. A variant subtype exists and is frequently associated with a poor response. Because of its simplified dosing schedule, cladribine is commonly used as the initial therapy. Treatment of relapsed HCL is dictated by the duration of the preceding remission. Relapsed disease after a prolonged remission can often be successfully retreated with the same initial agent. Resistance in typical HCL is treated with the alternate purine analogue. New agents, such as rituximab and BL22, are actively being evaluated and show promising results in both HCL subtypes. This article uses two patients diagnosed with aplastic anemia and recently seen in consultation at our institution as a springboard to discuss the biology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, diagnostic evaluation, and treatment options of HCL.

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