Adult T-cell leukaemia/lymphoma (ATLL) is a mature T-cell neoplasm of post-thymic lymphocytes aetiologically linked to the human T-cell lymphotropic virus, HTLV-I, and with a distinct geographical distribution. The disease manifests with leukaemia in greater than two thirds of patients, while the remaining patients have a lymphomatous form. According to the disease manifestations, various forms which differ in clinical course and prognosis have been recognised: acute, chronic, smouldering and lymphoma. Organomegaly, skin involvement, circulating atypical lymphocytes (“flower” cells) with a CD4+ CD25+ phenotype and hypercalcaemia are the most common disease features. The diagnosis should be based on a constellation of clinical features and laboratory investigations. The latter comprise: lymphocyte morphology, immunophenotype, histology of the tissues affected in the pure lymphoma forms and serology or DNA analysis for HTLV-I. The differential diagnosis of ATLL includes other mature T-cell neoplasms such as T-cell prolymphocytic leukaemia (T-PLL), Sézary syndrome (SS), peripheral T-cell lymphomas and occasionally healthy carriers of the virus or Hodgkin disease. The clinical course is aggressive with a median survival of less than 12 months in the acute and lymphoma forms. Despite major advances in understanding the pathogenesis of the disease, management of these patients remains a challenge for clinicians as they do not respond or achieve only transient responses to therapies used in high-grade lymphomas. The use of antiretroviral agents such as zidovudine in combination with interferon-alpha, with or without concomitant chemotherapy, has shown activity in this disease with improvement in survival and response rate. Consolidation with high dose therapy and autologous or allogeneic stem-cell transplantation should be considered in young patients.
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Competing interests: None.