Natural killer cell neoplasms: a distinctive group of highly aggressive lymphomas/leukemias

Semin Hematol. 2003 Jul;40(3):221-32. doi: 10.1016/s0037-1963(03)00136-7.


Natural killer (NK) cell neoplasms, which include extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma (nasal and extranasal) and aggressive NK cell leukemia, are generally rare, but they are more common in people of Oriental, Mexican and South American descent. These neoplasms are highly aggressive, and show a strong association with Epstein-Barr virus. Extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma most commonly affects the nasal cavity and other mucosal sites of the upper aerodigestive tract. Patients present with nasal obstruction or midfacial destruction. Despite the early stage of disease at presentation, overall survival is poor. Patients with the extranasal form of the lymphoma often present with high-stage disease, commonly involving the skin, gastrointestinal tract, testis, and soft tissue, and the prognosis is even worse. Histologically, the lymphoma can show a broad cytologic spectrum, but apoptosis, necrosis, and angioinvasion are common. The most common immunophenotype is CD2(+), surface CD3(-), cytoplasmic CD3(+), CD56(+). Based on currently available data, treatment of nasal NK/T-cell lymphoma should consist of radiotherapy, with or without multiagent chemotherapy. More research is required to ascertain the role of high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue and that of non-multidrug resistance-related chemotherapeutic agents. Aggressive NK cell leukemia affects younger patients, who present with poor general condition, fever, and disseminated disease; they often die within a short time from systemic disease or complications such as multi-organ failure. The peripheral blood and bone marrow show atypical large granular lymphocytes, which exhibit an immunophenotype similar to that of extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma. Aggressive NK cell leukemia must be distinguished from T-cell large granular lymphocyte leukemia and indolent NK cell lymphoproliferative disorder, both of which are indolent.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Killer Cells, Natural / pathology*
  • Leukemia / diagnosis
  • Leukemia / pathology*
  • Leukemia / therapy
  • Lymphoma / diagnosis
  • Lymphoma / pathology*
  • Lymphoma / therapy
  • Lymphoma, T-Cell / diagnosis
  • Lymphoma, T-Cell / pathology
  • Lymphoma, T-Cell / therapy
  • Treatment Outcome