Lymphoblastic lymphoma (LBL) is a rare disease postulated to arise from precursor B or T lymphoblasts at varying stages of differentiation. Accounting for approximately 2% of all NHLs, 85% to 90% of all cases have a T-cell phenotype, while B-cell LBL comprises approximately 10% to 15% of cases. LBL and ALL are thought to represent the same disease entity, but LBL has been arbitrarily defined as cases with lymph node or mediastinal disease. Those with significant (> 25%) bone marrow or peripheral blood involvement are classified as ALL.
Precursor T-cell LBL patients are usually adolescent and young males who commonly present with a mediastinal mass and peripheral lymphadenopathy. Precursor B-cell LBL patients are usually older (median age 39 years) with peripheral lymphadenopathy and extranodal involvement. Mediastinal involvement with B-cell LBL is uncommon, and there is no male predominance. LBL has a propensity for dissemination to the bone marrow and CNS.
Morphologically, the tumor cells are medium sized, with a scant cytoplasm and finely dispersed chromatin. Mitotic features and apoptotic bodies are present since it is a high-grade malignancy. The lymphoblasts are typically positive for CD7 and either surface or cytoplasmic CD3. Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase expression is a defining feature. Other markers such as CD19, CD22, CD20, CD79a, CD45, and CD10 are variably expressed. Poor prognostic factors in T-cell LBL are female gender, age greater than 35 years, complex cytogenetics, and lack of a matched sibling donor.
Regimens for LBL are based on dose-dense, multi-agent protocols used in ALL. Most of these regimens are characterized by intensive remission-induction chemotherapy, CNS prophylaxis, a phase of consolidation therapy, and a prolonged maintenance phase, often lasting for 12 to 18 months with long-term DFS rates of 40% to 70%.110,111 High-dose therapy with auto-HCT or allo-HCT in first complete response has been evaluated in an attempt to reduce the incidence of relapse.112 However, the intensity of primary chemotherapy appears to be a stronger determinant of long-term survival than the use of HCT as consolidation. As a result, HCT is not routinely applied to patients in first complete remission following modern induction regimens. After relapse, prognosis is poor, with median survival rates of 6 to 9 months with conventional chemotherapy, although long-term survival rates of 30% and 20%, respectively, are reported after HCT in relapsed and primary refractory disease.113
Treatment options in relapsed disease are limited. Nelarabine can produce responses in up to 40% of relapsed/refractory LBL/ALL patients.114 For the minority of LBL patients with a B-cell phenotype, emerging options for relapsed/refractory LBL/ALL such as inotuzumab, blinatumomab, or anti-CD19 CAR T-cell therapy should be considered. These are not options for the majority who have a T-cell phenotype, and treatment options for these patients are limited to conventional relapsed/refractory ALL and aggressive NHL regimens.
Aggressive NHLs are characterized by rapid clinical progression without therapy. However, a significant proportion of patients are cured with appropriate combination chemotherapy or combined modality (chemotherapy + RT) regimens. In contrast, the indolent lymphomas have a relatively good prognosis (median survival of 10 years or longer) but usually are not curable in advanced clinical stages. Overall 5-year survival for aggressive NHLs with current treatment is approximately 50% to 60%, with relapses typically occurring within the first 5 years. Treatment strategies for relapsed patients offer some potential for cure; however, clinical trial participation should be encouraged whenever possible to investigate new approaches for improving outcomes in this patient population.