Chronic lymphocytic leukemia: 2017 update on diagnosis, risk stratification, and treatment

Am J Hematol. 2017 Sep;92(9):946-965. doi: 10.1002/ajh.24826.


Disease overview: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is the commonest leukemia in western countries. The disease typically occurs in elderly patients and has a highly variable clinical course. Leukemic transformation is initiated by specific genomic alterations that impair apoptosis of clonal B cells.

Diagnosis: The diagnosis is established by blood counts, blood smears, and immunophenotyping of circulating B lymphocytes, which identify a clonal B-cell population carrying the CD5 antigen and B-cell markers.

Prognosis: Two prognostic staging systems exist, the Rai and Binet staging systems, which are established by physical examination and blood counts. Various biological and genetic markers also have prognostic value. Deletions of the short arm of chromosome 17 (del(17p)) and/or mutations of the TP53 gene predict resistance to available chemotherapies. A comprehensive prognostic score (CLL-IPI) using genetic, biological, and clinical variables has recently been developed allowing to classify CLL into very distinct risk groups.

Therapy: Patients with active or symptomatic disease or with advanced Binet or Rai stages require therapy. For physically fit patients, chemoimmunotherapy with fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, and rituximab remains the current standard therapy. For unfit patients, currently available evidence supports two options for a first-line therapy: chlorambucil combined with an anti-CD20 antibody (obinutuzumab or rituximab or ofatumumab) or a continuous therapy with ibrutinib. At relapse, the initial treatment may be repeated, if the treatment-free interval exceeds 3 years. If the disease relapses earlier, therapy should be changed using alternative agents such as bendamustine (plus rituximab), alemtuzumab, lenalidomide, ofatumumab, ibrutinib, idelalisib, or venetoclax. Patients with a del(17p) or TP53 mutation can be treated with ibrutinib, venetoclax, or a combination of idelalisib and rituximab. An allogeneic SCT may be considered in relapsing patients with TP53 mutations or del(17p) or patients that are refractory to chemoimmunotherapy and the novel inhibitors.

Future challenges: The new agents (ibrutinib, idelalisib, venetoclax, and obinutuzumab) hold the potential to significantly improve the outcome of CLL patients. However, their optimal use (in terms of combination, sequence, and duration) remains unknown. Therefore, CLL patients should be treated in clinical trials whenever possible.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenine / analogs & derivatives
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use*
  • Chromosome Deletion*
  • Chromosomes, Human, Pair 17
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / diagnosis
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / drug therapy
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / genetics
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / pathology
  • Piperidines
  • Pyrazoles / therapeutic use
  • Pyrimidines / therapeutic use
  • Risk Assessment
  • Rituximab / therapeutic use
  • Smith-Magenis Syndrome*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / genetics*


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Piperidines
  • Pyrazoles
  • Pyrimidines
  • TP53 protein, human
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • ibrutinib
  • Rituximab
  • Adenine
  • ofatumumab
  • obinutuzumab

Supplementary concepts

  • Chromosome 17 deletion