Objectives: In patients with refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the potential to cure is unique to allogeneic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). Clearance of minimal residual disease by suspected graft-versus-leukemia effects has been described elegantly and documented in several independent patient cohorts. Yet data from large numbers of patients which support the concept of cure by allogeneic transplantation have not been published. With the advent of new targeted therapies for patients with advanced chemo-refractory CLL, this information becomes crucial for clinical decision making and patient counselling. Therefore, we aimed at the description of long-term survival outcomes, and the estimation of excess mortality compared to the age- and sex-matched general population.

Patients and Methods: Data from patients with CLL who had received a first allogeneic HSCT from an HLA-identical sibling (SIB) or alternative donor between January 2000 and December 2010, and who were registered with the EBMT database, were analyzed. Patients with Richter's syndrome and with syngeneic donors were excluded from this analysis. Survival probabilities were calculated by means of the Kaplan-Meier estimator both in the total population, and in patients who passed the 2- and 5-year landmark without previous relapse or progression. Excess mortality of the landmark populations compared to an age-, sex- and calendar year-matched general population was estimated with a Cox regression model for relative survival using the R-package “relsurv”.

Results: In total 2589 patients were included into the analysis. The median follow-up of patients alive at the end of follow-up was 4.0 years (range: 1 to 161 months). The median age at HSCT was 55 years (range: 12 to 74 years). One hundred and fifty eight patients (6.1%) were below 40 years of age at the time of transplantation. Seventy-four percent of patients were male. The remission status at the time of transplantation was reported as complete remission in 15%, partial remission in 47%, and stable disease or progressive disease in 32%. Information on the remission status was not available for 6% of the patients. Fifty-one percent of the patients had an HLA-matched sibling donor and seventy-seven percent of patients received reduced-intensity conditioning.

For the whole cohort of patients, the 5- and 10-year overall survival (OS), progression-free survival (PFS), and non-relapse mortality (NRM) were 45%, 35%, 36%, and 35%, 28%, 40%, respectively. The cumulative incidence of relapse (CIR) was 21% at two years, 29% at five years, and 32% at ten years. A total of 1023 patients and 394 patients were alive without relapse or progression, and in follow-up at two and five years after HSCT. Five years after patients had passed the 2- and 5-year landmark, OS, CIR and NRM were 73%, 22%, 16%, and 83%, 11%, 10% respectively.

Compared to the general population excess mortality of the 5-year landmark population in the subsequent five years was estimated to be 3% for male patients at an age of 45 years, 10% for male patients at an age of 55 years, and 24% for male patients at an age of 65 years (see Figure 1). For female patients in this 5-year landmark population, the corresponding excess mortality rates were 4%, 11%, and 27%.

Patients without progression and with CR at any time from HSCT to the two and five-year landmarks had a slightly better outcome than those who had never had CR. Surprisingly, this was not a result of a lower CIR but of a lower NRM.

Conclusion: Long-term follow-up data derived from the EBMT registry show a steady decline in hazard of relapse after allogeneic HSCT, yet relapse continues to be a threat. Moreover, even patients alive and disease-free after 5 years are still confronted with substantial NRM. These results show that there is room for improvement of long-term patient care.

By comparing mortality of younger patients who passed the 5-year landmark with the general population, only marginal excess mortality was observed, while elderly patients still had substantial excess mortality beyond this landmark. Nevertheless, the results indicate that a significant fraction of patients can be cured by allogeneic HSCT.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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