Chronic lymphocytic leukemia: 2020 update on diagnosis, risk stratification and treatment

Am J Hematol. 2019 Nov;94(11):1266-1287. doi: 10.1002/ajh.25595. Epub 2019 Oct 4.


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, as well as typical B-cell markers.

Prognosis: The two similar clinical staging systems, Rai and Binet, create prognostic information by using results of 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 chemoimmunotherapy and a shorter time to progression, with most targeted therapies. A comprehensive, international prognostic score (CLL-IPI) integrates genetic, biological and clinical variables to identify distinct risk groups of CLL patients.

Therapy: Only patients with active or symptomatic disease, or with advanced Binet or Rai stages require therapy. When treatment is indicated, several options exist for most CLL patients: a combination of venetoclax with obinutuzumab, ibrutinib monotherapy, or chemoimmunotherapy. For physically fit patients younger than 65 (in particular when presenting with a mutated IGVH gene), chemoimmunotherapy with fludarabine, cyclophosphamide and rituximab remains a standard therapy, since it may have curative potential. 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 an alternative regimen. Patients with a del (17p) or TP53 mutation are a different, high-risk category and should be treated with targeted agents. An allogeneic SCT may be considered in relapsing patients with TP53 mutations or del (17p), or patients that are refractory to inhibitor therapy.

Future challenges: Targeted agents (ibrutinib, idelalisib, venetoclax, obinutuzumab) will be increasingly used in combination to allow for short, but potentially definitive therapies of CLL. It remains to be proven that they generate a superior outcome when compared to monotherapies with inhibitors of Bruton tyrosine kinase, which can also yield long-lasting remissions. Moreover, the optimal sequencing of drug combinations is unknown. Therefore, CLL patients should be treated in clinical trials whenever possible.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • B-Lymphocytes / pathology
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Blood Cell Count
  • Chromosome Deletion
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Immunotherapy
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / diagnosis
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / epidemiology
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / genetics
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / therapy
  • Male
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Staging / methods
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Assessment / methods


  • Biomarkers, Tumor