Prodromal/pre-leukemic acute leukemia is rare, mostly described in childhood B-lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL), with its initial presentation confused with aplastic anemia (AA). Findings reported in pediatric prodromal/pre-leukemic B-ALL include female preponderance, bone marrow (BM) fibrosis and uniform hypocellularity, and transient recovery.

Reports in adults are rarer still. We conducted a retrospective review of adult patients we diagnosed with B-ALL and mixed phenotype acute leukemia with B-lymphoid and myeloid components (MPAL-B/myeloid) with prodromal/pre-leukemic manifestations. We sought to identify common clinical features, peripheral blood (PB) and BM morphology, diagnostic considerations, and clinical follow-up (whenever available) to aid in improved recognition in the adult setting.


Patients with unusual presentations preceding overt acute leukemia were identified from pathology and clinical records from our institution from 2010-2020. These include (a) incidental PB blasts and partial BM-based disease, followed by spontaneous, transient regression (STR); (b) pancytopenia with rare to absent PB blasts and unexpected detection of BM-based blasts (10% or lower), compatible with aleukemic prodrome (AP) cases; (c) pancytopenia without PB blasts yet unexpected excess BM-based blasts (50% or greater) followed by marked reduction of BM-based blasts (compared to initial BM) despite absence of treatment (AP-->SR). BM pathology during prodromal/pre-leukemic phases were reviewed to identify key morphologic features.


Seven patients were identified (4 M, 3 F; age range 20-75 years), including one previously described by our group (Table 1). All were of Hispanic ethnicity. They displayed a broad range of symptoms including fatigue, fevers, throat pain, and weight loss. Initial presentations were STR in 3, AP in 2, and AP-->SR in 2.

Although variably cellular, all BM trephine biopsies in prodromal/pre-leukemic phase had at least focal hypocellularity with stromal damage, characterized by granular to fibrillary stroma, striking cellular dropout, and multiloculated fat cells with fibrinoid appearance. Relative erythroid hyperplasia was seen in 4, while dyserythropoiesis and dysmegakaryocytopoiesis were both observed in 2 cases, raising concern for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

AA and MDS were, in some cases, seriously considered in the initial differential diagnosis. Because of low level BM blasts at initial presentation in most (5/7), definitive lineage designation was sometimes challenging. Furthermore, flow cytometric data was limited and IHC stained only a sparse number of immature B-cells; thus normal precursor B-cell (hematogone) hyperplasia was a strong possibility. Workup in 2 cases during low numbers of BM-based blasts or spontaneous blast reduction (cases #6 and #7, respectively) revealed T-cell clones on PCR/NGS testing. In STR and AP cases, the disease proceeded from initial presentation to overt leukemia within a fairly short interval (range 1.5 - 7.0 months; median 2.5). Final diagnosis in the majority of cases (6/7) was B-ALL, with one case of MPAL-B/myeloid.


Herein we describe a series of 7 adult prodromal/pre-leukemic cases of B-lymphoblasts (6 B-ALL; 1 MPAL-B/myeloid) with a variety of clinical presentations. In contrast to the female-predominant pediatric prodromal B-ALLs, most of our adult cases occurred in males. Given pancytopenia, relatively low numbers, and difficulty in assigning blast lineage, diagnostic considerations initially included MDS, AA, and hematogone hyperplasia with marrow regeneration. Key morphologic features that favored a prodromal/pre-leukemic case of B-lymphoblasts over MDS or AA were profound stromal damage and expansion (albeit low numbers) of immature B-cells - findings that would be unusual in low-grade MDS and AA. Intriguingly, in 2 of our cases, T-cell clones detected on PCR testing during low blast levels may indicate an immunologic role of T-cells in transiently reducing blasts in prodromal acute leukemia, as previously suggested by Zimmermannova and colleagues (Haematol2017;102:e225-228). Regardless of whether patients experienced STR, AP, or AP-->SR, close clinical follow-up is advised, as progression to overt leukemia occurs within a relatively short time frame (median of 2.5 months in our series).


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.