What Causes Hairy Cell Leukemia?

Hairy cell leukemia is an unusual type of cancer that affects the B cells (lymphocytes).

Patients who suffer from hairy cell leukemia disease tend to get bruises or bleeding, excessive sweating (especially at night), fatigue, weakness, weight loss, feeling of “fullness” after eating a little of food, recurrent fever, infections and swallowed lymph nodes.

What Causes Hairy Cell Leukemia?

What Causes Hairy Cell Leukemia?

Hairy cell leukemia disease is originated by an abnormal proliferation of B cells, and received its trivial name due to the “hairy appearance” they acquire when these cells are observed in the microscope since they have thin projections getting out of their surface.

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) can provoke very low levels of the blood cells. The cause of hairy cell leukemia is unknown so far by experts, it affects men more than women, and the average age for its diagnosis is 55 years.

Leukemia can affect red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Habitually, the bone marrow produces blood stem cells (immature cells) that become in mature blood cells in due season. A blood stem cell can be converted into a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.

A myeloid stem cell becomes one of the following three types of mature blood cells:

Red blood cells that transport oxygen and other vital substances to all tissues of the body.

White blood cells that battle infections and diseases.

-Platelets, which form blood clots to stop bleeding.

A lymphoid stem cell turns into a lymphoblast cell and then, in one of the following three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):

-B lymphocytes, which produce antibodies to help fight infections.

-T lymphocytes, which help B lymphocytes in the production of antibodies to fight infections.

-Natural killer cells, which attack cancer cells or viruses.

In hairy cell leukemia, there are too many blood stem cells that become lymphocytes. These lymphocytes are not normal and do not become healthy white blood cells. Leukemic cells can accumulate in the blood and bone marrow so that there is less room for white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This can cause infection, anemia and easy bleeding. Some of the leukemic cells can accumulate in the spleen and cause it to swell.

How Is Hairy Cell Leukemia Disease Diagnosed?

The doctor performs a physical examination of the patients with hairy cell leukemia, where an enlarged spleen may be palpated. The swelling of this organ can be better observed in a computed tomography.

A complete blood count test (hemogram) can evidence really low levels of red and white blood cells, but also platelets. This is a condition known by experts as “pancytopenia” and because of this condition patients can get anemia, infections, and issues derived from blood coagulation.

Doctors can proceed with blood tests or even bone marrow aspiration in order to prove the presence of hairy cells. A test called “flow cytometry or tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase” allows the diagnosis of cancer.

Regarding the hairy cell leukemia treatment, it is possible that the patient does not need it at the beginning of the disease. Some patients may require an occasional blood transfusion.

In case of really low levels in the hemogram, a series of chemotherapy drugs are needed for treatment of hairy cell leukemia. The most used drug is cladribine; these chemotherapy medications allow the relief of the symptoms for many years. When signs and symptoms disappear, doctors use the term of remission period. So, the treatment causes relief, but it is hard to achieve the remission.

Surgical extraction of the spleen (splenectomy) can enhance the low blood cells count; however, that is not the cure for hairy cell leukemia. Antibiotics can be very useful to treat infections. People with low hemograms have to receive growth factors and occasionally blood transfusions.


Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent hairy cell leukemia and it has not been discovered so far what the exact cause of this severe disease.

New chemotherapy drugs have greatly increased the survival for people with hairy cell leukemia. Most patients can expect to live 10 years or more after diagnosis, with a proper treatment.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 12, 2021

Recent Posts

Related Posts