Understanding Key Tests That Affect AML Treatment Choices

Understanding Key Tests That Affect AML Treatment Choices from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

For acute myeloid leukemia (AML), test results play a vital role in determining the most appropriate treatment option. Expert Dr. Ellen Ritchie reviews key tests used to pinpoint a patient’s specific AML, how the test results are utilized, and important questions patients should ask their doctor about AML testing. 

Dr. Ellen K. Ritchie is assistant professor of medicine and a member of the Leukemia Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Ritchie, here.

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So, let’s help our audience be clear about basic testing. What tests are necessary to help understand a patient’s specific disease at diagnosis?

Dr. Ritchie:

I mean certainly it’s important to do a physical exam and to find out what the general health of the patient is. In order to evaluate an AML, or any other leukemia, I look at the peripheral blood smear. To look at what I think the type of leukemia might be that I am dealing with. There are some leukemias that have particular way that they look like acute promyelocytic leukemia for which there is a designated therapy which works.

And you can tell that just by looking at a peripheral blood slide. The next test is always a bone marrow biopsy. Patients are not delighted that that is a test, but it is a test that can be done in the office, usually within 15 to 20 minutes. And that test gives us a lot of information. It gives us information about what type of AML it is, what are the markers on the outside of the cell, it gives us information about the chromosomes inside the leukemia cell. Are there missing chromosomes, or rearranged chromosomes? And if there are, that can be very relevant to the prognosis. And lastly, it’s sent for a particular mutations or markers. So, we look for IDH3 mutations, we look for FLT3 mutations, we look for IDH1 and IDH2 mutations, and we do an entire myeloid panel. Which is about 44/45 genes that are most commonly mutated in patients with AML. So that’s the initial work-up for any AML patient.


You mentioned markers, Dr. Ritchie. What is genomic, or biomarker testing?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, we’re looking really at most specifically at mutations inside individual genes that might be in your leukemia cell. So, there are some mutations actually that confer a better prognosis. Like NPM1 or CEPBA, those can be more positive type of prognosis than some of the others.

But we’re also looking for markers that might be targetable with certain therapies that we have. So, if you have a FLT3 ITD or TKD, we actually have particular drugs which can target those particular mutations. There are also drugs that are FDA approved to treat IDH1 and IDH2 mutations.

There are certain mutations that have a relatively poor prognosis, like TP53 for which there are clinical trials which are available, which specifically are meant to target patients who have those sorts of mutations. And there’re other clinical trials using the FDA-approved drugs that I just mentioned, for FLT3, for IDH1 and IDH2 and combining it with other agents to try and improve outcome in AML patients.


Some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so what key questions should they be asking their physician about testing?

Dr. Ritchie:

So, physicians, they – financial coverage of the mutational testing is not uniform across the country and across insurances. So, Medicare and different Medicare insurances and some of the private insurances all vary in their coverage.

So, in my clinic, I am asking – I prefer the test that we do in house at Cornell. But it’s important that I ask, what will their insurance cover. And make sure that I send the appropriate testing that will be covered by insurance. There are some insurances that will not cover this type of testing. So, it is a real question for the patient, when you go to see the doctor to say, are you going to do mutational NGS testing?

And, will my insurance cover this? Hopefully most – if Medicare adopts the coverage of these types of mutational testing, it’s often true that private insurance will eventually pick this up. But it’s a murky field, and it’s really important to talk to your doctor about this. The cost of the bone marrow biopsy, and the chromosomal evaluation is nearly always covered by insurance.

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective?

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment effectiveness monitored? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses the potential symptom improvements that can manifest and what she looks for during examinations with her patients.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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How do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a lot of it has to do with the CBC, so your normal blood count, and what we’re looking for is improvement in hemoglobin and improvement or normalization of platelet count. And for many people, those, either anemia or low platelets, are the symptoms that drive people to be treated in the first place, so we’re looking for those parameters to get better.

With a lot of people with CLL, totally understandably, because it’s the number that’s the most abnormal, really focused on white blood cell count. 100 percent understandable.

I always tell people that that’s actually the part of the CBC that I care least about, and the reason is that, for patients on BTK inhibitors, we expect to see the white blood count actually get higher before it gets less high. That’s actually just a sign that the drug is working and it’s pulling CLL cells from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream. So, that’s actually a good sign that it’s working, and that lymphocyte count, at least in the beginning, isn’t a great marker of how well the drug is working.

The other thing that’s important is the physical exam, so looking for whether any lymph nodes that were enlarged have normalized or gone away, and also feeling the sides of the spleen, because the spleen can become enlarged with CLL, and it’s important to make sure that’s normalizing, as well.

And then the last piece is talking to people, so making sure that if they were having fatigue, or fevers, or night sweats before they started treatment, to make sure that those symptoms have gone away. And that’s kind of the three things that I use. I use the blood counts, the physical exam, and the interview with a patient to really understand how their disease is responding.

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests?

Have You Had These Essential Myelofibrosis Tests? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the essential tests that should follow a myelofibrosis diagnosis? Dr. Joseph Scandura reviews the necessary laboratory testing, along with a discussion of next generation sequencing, and explains how often bone marrow biopsies should take place.

Dr. Joseph Scandura is Associate Professor of Medicine and Scientific Director of the Silver MPN Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Scandura, here.

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Katherine Banwell: 

What testing should take place following a myelofibrosis diagnosis? 

Dr. Scandura:  

So, a diagnosis of myelofibrosis always comes after a bone marrow exam and a physical examination. Often, patients have an enlarged spleen and blood count testing and a variety of other laboratory tests. So, after that and a diagnosis is made of myelofibrosis and, sort of, coincident with the diagnosis, we often look for molecular markers of myelofibrosis. So, these are malignancies of the bone marrow, cancers, if you will, on the bone marrow, although the term is scarier than or is different than what we think of for many malignancies in how it acts. But the myelofibrosis, this is a disease that’s characterized by, really, mutations in the malignant cells, the abnormal cells. 

They’re really just one of three genes. And so, JAK2 being one of the genes, calreticulin or CALR being another one, and MPL one.  

And more than 90 percent are people having mutation in just one of those three genes. And so, often at the time of diagnosis, tests for those mutations are done, and they help eliminate the possibilities of other causes of myelofibrosis – infections, rheumatological diseases. Sometimes, you can have marrow fibrosis but they don’t go along with mutations and the same clinical situation. And so, at the time of diagnosis, we usually know something about a mutation in JAK2, CALR, or MPL.    

More commonly now, and it’s increasingly common over the past 10 years in, I would say, in New York City and many places across the country, we also look more broadly for other common mutations in the MPN cells. And these are what we refer in the batch as next generation sequencing or NGS panels, and we use the term panels because we’re looking at from a few tens to even 100 or a couple hundred genes for mutations that occur far less frequently than in JAK2 or MPL or CALR.  

But they occur often enough that some of them we use to help guide treatment decision-making or approach to therapy. The reality of it is that that the technology to sequence and identify mutations has really outstripped our knowledge of what to do with all of that information. 

And, for the vast majority of people, it comes down to do you have a marker, a genetic marker that tends to go along with higher risk, meaning a higher likelihood of something that we don’t want to have happen. And in that instance, although it may be looking at a hundred or so genes, it comes down to a binary thing – either you have or you don’t have. 

Katherine Banwell:

Is there any other testing that you usually want to do? 

Dr. Scandura:

Laboratory testing, for sure and, as I mentioned before, a bone marrow exam. But physical examination, some people might do imaging of the spleen size. Honestly, I don’t routinely do that outside of the setting of the clinical trial. I don’t really think it dictates therapy very often. 

And if the spleen is so small that you can’t feel it on physical exam, it probably isn’t clinically meaningful anyway in terms of something to treat. It might be there, but it doesn’t really change things too much.   

Katherine Banwell:

How often should patients have a bone marrow biopsy? 

Dr. Scandura:

So, I’ll answer there is no standard in terms of monitoring for myelofibrosis with the marrow or otherwise. My personal approach is I do a marrow when I think it’s going to help medical decision-making. And so, for a patient who’s got early myelofibrosis, who’s been very stable, responding well to therapy, that could be three, five years between marrow exams. 

For somebody who’s being considered for a clinical trial, oftentimes, a marrow exam is required before they start on the clinical trial and at various intervals afterwards. If there’s somebody who had been stable and something is changing, like the blood counts are changing or his symptoms are changing, or any of a number of clinical features, then I might look in the marrow to see what’s happening there, to see if explains and can help guide a treatment approach to help people feel better. So, there is no single standard, but my personal approach is to do a bone marrow exam when I think it’s going to help make a decision.