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Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 06/05/2014

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Treatment Option Overview



There are different types of treatment for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Different types of treatment are available for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Children with ALL should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating childhood leukemia.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other pediatric health professionals who are experts in treating children with leukemia and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:

Regular follow-up exams are very important. Treatment can cause side effects long after it has ended. These are called late effects. Radiation therapy to the brain may cause changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory. Children younger than 4 years have a higher risk of side effects from radiation therapy to the brain.

Late effects of treatment for ALL also include the risk of second cancers (new types of cancer), especially brain tumors.

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the possible late effects caused by some treatments. See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer.

The treatment of childhood ALL usually has three phases.

The treatment of childhood ALL is done in phases:

  • Remission induction: This is the first phase of treatment. The goal is to kill the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. This puts the leukemia into remission.
  • Consolidation /intensification: This is the second phase of treatment. It begins once the leukemia is in remission. The goal of consolidation/intensification therapy is to kill any leukemia cells that remain in the body and may cause a relapse.
  • Maintenance: This is the third phase of treatment. The goal is to kill any remaining leukemia cells that may regrow and cause a relapse. Often the cancer treatments are given in lower doses than those used during the remission induction and consolidation/intensification phases. Not taking medication as ordered by the doctor during maintenance therapy increases the chance the cancer will come back. This is also called the continuation therapy phase.

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.

The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the child's risk group. Children with high-risk ALL receive more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children with standard-risk ALL.

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. External radiation therapy may be used to treat childhood ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord.

Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant is a method of giving high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes total-body irradiation, and then replacing the blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of a donor. After the patient receives treatment, the donor's stem cells are given to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the patient's blood cells. The stem cell donor doesn't have to be related to the patient.

Stem cell transplant is rarely used as initial treatment for children and teenagers with ALL. It is used more often as part of treatment for ALL that relapses (comes back after treatment).

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

Stem Cell Transplant 
Stem cell transplant (Step 1). Blood is taken from a vein in the arm of the donor. The blood flows through a machine that removes the stem cells. Then the blood is returned to the donor through a vein in the other arm.Stem cell transplant (Step 2). The patient receives chemotherapy to kill blood-forming cells. The patient may receive radiation therapy (not shown).Stem cell transplant (Step 3). The patient receives stem cells through a catheter placed into a blood vessel in the chest.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are targeted therapy drugs that block the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, which causes stem cells to become more white blood cells or blasts than the body needs. Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) is a TKI used in the treatment of children with Philadelphia chromosome –positive ALL.

New kinds of targeted therapies are also being studied in the treatment of childhood ALL.

See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.

Treatment is given to kill leukemia cells that have spread or may spread to the brain, spinal cord, or testicles.

Treatment to kill leukemia cells or prevent the spread of leukemia cells to the brain and spinal cord is called CNS-directed therapy. Chemotherapy may be used to treat leukemia cells that have spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. Because standard chemotherapy may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to hide in the CNS. Systemic chemotherapy given in high doses or intrathecal chemotherapy (into the cerebrospinal fluid) is able to reach leukemia cells in the CNS. Sometimes external radiation therapy to the brain is also given.

Enlarge
Intrathecal chemotherapy; drawing shows the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain and spinal cord, and an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). Top section shows a syringe and needle injecting anticancer drugs into the Ommaya reservoir. Bottom section shows a syringe and needle injecting anticancer drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid in the lower part of the spinal column.
Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.

These treatments are given in addition to treatment that is used to kill leukemia cells in the rest of the body. All children with ALL receive CNS-directed therapy as part of induction therapy and consolidation/intensification therapy and sometimes during maintenance therapy.

If the leukemia cells spread to the testicles, treatment includes high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy is done during all phases of treatment to see how well the treatment is working.