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Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version
Last Modified: 04/04/2014

Treatment Option Overview for Childhood ALL

Phases of Therapy
Sanctuary Sites
        Central nervous system (CNS)
        Testes

Children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) should be cared for at a center with specialized expertise in pediatric cancer.[1] Treatment planning by a multidisciplinary team of pediatric cancer specialists with experience and expertise in treating leukemias of childhood is required to determine and implement optimum treatment.

Treatment of childhood ALL typically involves chemotherapy given for 2 to 3 years. Since myelosuppression and generalized immunosuppression are anticipated consequences of leukemia and chemotherapy treatment, patients must be closely monitored at diagnosis and during treatment.

Adequate facilities must be immediately available both for hematologic support and for the treatment of infections and other complications throughout all phases of therapy. Approximately 1% to 3% of patients die during induction therapy and another 1% to 3% die during the initial remission from treatment-related complications.[2,3]

Clinical trials are generally available for children with ALL, with specific protocols designed for children at standard (low) risk of treatment failure and for children at higher risk of treatment failure. Clinical trials for children with ALL are generally designed to compare therapy that is currently accepted as standard for a particular risk group with a potentially better treatment approach that may improve survival outcome and/or diminish toxicities associated with the standard treatment regimen. Many of the therapeutic innovations that produced increased survival rates in children with ALL were established through clinical trials, and it is appropriate for children and adolescents with ALL to be offered participation in a clinical trial.

Risk-based treatment assignment is an important therapeutic strategy utilized for children with ALL. This approach allows children who historically have a very good outcome to be treated with less intensive therapy and to be spared more toxic treatments, while allowing children with a historically lower probability of long-term survival to receive stronger therapy that may increase their chance of cure. (Refer to the Risk-based Treatment Assignment section of this summary for more information about a number of clinical and laboratory features that have demonstrated prognostic value.)

Phases of Therapy

Treatment for children with ALL is typically divided as follows:

  1. Remission induction (at the time of diagnosis).

  2. Postinduction therapy (after achieving complete remission).

Sanctuary Sites

Historically, certain extramedullary sites have been considered sanctuary sites (i.e., anatomic spaces that are poorly penetrated by many of the systemically administered chemotherapy agents typically used to treat ALL). The two most important sanctuary sites in childhood ALL are the central nervous system (CNS) and the testes. Successful treatment of ALL requires therapy that effectively addresses clinical or subclinical involvement of leukemia in these extramedullary sanctuary sites.

Central nervous system (CNS)

Approximately 3% of patients have detectable CNS involvement by conventional criteria at diagnosis (cerebrospinal fluid specimen with ≥5 WBC/μL with lymphoblasts and/or the presence of cranial nerve palsies). However, unless specific therapy is directed toward the CNS, the majority of children will eventually develop overt CNS leukemia. CNS-directed treatments include intrathecal chemotherapy, CNS-directed systemic chemotherapy, and cranial radiation; some or all of these are included in current regimens for ALL. (Refer to the CNS-directed Therapy for Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia section of this summary for more information.)

Testes

Overt testicular involvement at the time of diagnosis occurs in approximately 2% of males. In early ALL trials, testicular involvement at diagnosis was an adverse prognostic factor. With more aggressive initial therapy, however, the prognostic significance of initial testicular involvement is unclear.[4,5] The role of radiation therapy for testicular involvement is also unclear. A study from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital suggests that a good outcome can be achieved with aggressive conventional chemotherapy without radiation.[4] The Children's Oncology Group has also adopted this strategy for boys with testicular involvement that resolves completely during induction chemotherapy.

References
  1. Corrigan JJ, Feig SA; American Academy of Pediatrics.: Guidelines for pediatric cancer centers. Pediatrics 113 (6): 1833-5, 2004.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  2. Rubnitz JE, Lensing S, Zhou Y, et al.: Death during induction therapy and first remission of acute leukemia in childhood: the St. Jude experience. Cancer 101 (7): 1677-84, 2004.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  3. Christensen MS, Heyman M, Möttönen M, et al.: Treatment-related death in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in the Nordic countries: 1992-2001. Br J Haematol 131 (1): 50-8, 2005.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  4. Hijiya N, Liu W, Sandlund JT, et al.: Overt testicular disease at diagnosis of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia: lack of therapeutic role of local irradiation. Leukemia 19 (8): 1399-403, 2005.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  5. Sirvent N, Suciu S, Bertrand Y, et al.: Overt testicular disease (OTD) at diagnosis is not associated with a poor prognosis in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia: results of the EORTC CLG Study 58881. Pediatr Blood Cancer 49 (3): 344-8, 2007.  [PUBMED Abstract]