Hairy cell leukaemia is a rare chronic lymphoproliferative disease, characterized by splenomegaly, pancytopenia and recurrent infection. The characteristic 'hairy cells', present in the peripheral blood and bone marrow, are the hallmark of this leukaemia. The disease has a chronic, progressive course, and the majority of patients afflicted by it require therapy. The most common reason to initiate treatment is neutropenia with or without associated infectious complications, or the development of severe thrombocytopenia. Therapeutic options in hairy cell leukaemia include splenectomy, interferon administration, or the use of chemotherapeutic agents such as pentostatin (2′-deoxycoformycin) and 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine. Splenectomy is still indicated in the treatment of young patients with significant splenomegaly and only minimal bone marrow involvement. Interferon treatment induces remission in approximately 90% of patients with hairy cell leukaemia, but complete remission is obtained in only 5-10%. The development of antibodies against interferon was initially considered a major problem, but longer follow-up of patients who developed antibodies has shown that it is transient and does not have a significant impact on the overall response to treatment. Pentostatin induces complete remission in 60-70% of patients and partial remission in 20-40%. 2-Chlorodeoxyadenosine is a very promising drug in the treatment of this rare leukaemia, inducing long-lasting complete remission in approximately 80% of patients. While interferon does not cure the disease, it is possible that a subset of patients treated with pentostatin or 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine are cured. Longer follow-up of these patients will determine whether this is true.
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