Date Published: 6 March 2009

Detailed diagnosis boosts child cancer survival

More accurate disease classification now means some young children with neuroblastoma will have less intensive treatment with better survival, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

In a pan-European trial, researchers found that screening the tumours of children under the age of one with advanced neuroblastoma for a gene called MYCN could save them from unnecessary chemotherapy.

The number of MYCN genes are known to be increased in about 25% of neuroblastomas. Tumours with increased numbers of this gene behave much more aggressively.

In this trial, 96% of patients whose neuroblastoma had spread to distant parts of the body but did not have the amplified gene survived five years or more with little or no treatment.

Neuroblastoma affects around 90 children each year in the UK and across the board, five year survival rates are around 60%. Around 30 children under the age of one are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK.

The study was led by Cancer Research UK's Professor of Paediatric Oncology Professor Andy Pearson at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton with Dr Mary Gerrard at Sheffield Children's Hospital and conducted by researchers from the International Society of Paediatric Oncology Europe Neuroblastoma Group (SIOPEN) and the Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG).

They treated 170 babies from nine European countries with neuroblastoma that had spread to distant parts of the body ? but who did not have the amplified MYCN gene in their tumours.

These children were treated with up to four courses of chemotherapy. Some children were treated with surgery first if their doctors felt they needed it.

Previously, these children would have been treated with up to 12 courses of chemotherapy.

Professor Pearson said:

"This is very positive news for babies with this type of neuroblastoma. We saw an excellent outcome in the children we treated who were spared extra therapy and the side effects that come with it. Chemotherapy can cause children to feel tired, sick and make it more likely they'll pick up infections, so it's very important to avoid this where possible. Our current goal is to individualise or personalise treatment for children with neuroblastoma."

The results of this trial suggest that less intense chemotherapy should be given to this group of babies.

Kate Law, Cancer Research UK's director of clinical trials, said:

" Overall, survival rates for children's cancers have been rapidly improving over the past three decades. But it's crucial we support trials like this to refine treatments and reduce the long-term side effects that curative therapies can sometimes cause.
This study confirms the importance of understanding the personal biology of individual patients in creating successful, tailored treatment regimes."

Source: Cancer Research UK

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