Bloomberg News

Leukemia No Longer a Death Sentence as 90% of Children Live

March 12, 2012

Childhood leukemia, once considered a death sentence, is now curable in nine out of 10 children, according to a study.

Five-year survival rates for children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most-common type in the young, rose to 90 percent in the years 2000 to 2005 from 84 percent in 1990 to 1994, according to research today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Survival increased for all groups of children, except for infants 1-years-old and younger, the study said.

Improved drug combinations and better ways to determine treatment needs helped boost survival, researchers said. Identifying subsets of leukemia and medications, such as Novartis AG (NOVN)’s Gleevec that specifically target those groups will help improve survival even more, the authors wrote.

“This was a disease that was incurable in the early 1960s and now 85 to 90 percent of children will be cured. That’s a pretty big advancement in that time,” said lead study author Stephen Hunger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, in a March 9 telephone interview. “The bad thing about it is we can’t cure 10 percent and that’s what we have to focus on.”

The vast majority of leukemias in children are acute, or rapidly developing forms. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, accounts for about 3 out of 4 cases of the blood cancer among children and teenagers. Most of the remaining cases are acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, according to the American Cancer Society.

Long-Term Survival

About 12,060 new cases of cancer are expected to occur in children 14 years and younger this year, according to the American Cancer Society. About 34 percent of those are leukemia.

The researchers analyzed long-term survival among 21,626 people who were treated for leukemia as children in Clinical Oncology Group trials between 1990 and 2005. The Clinical Oncology Group includes more than 200 institutions in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand

They found that 10-year survival rose to almost 84 percent in 1995 to 1999 from 80 percent in 1990 to 1994. Survival also improved for almost all groups including older children and black children, the study showed.

“Childhood ALL is highly curable in 2012. Participation in these clinical trials is what has allowed us to improve the overall survival and cure rates for these kids,” said ZoAnn E. Dreyer, a pediatric oncologist at Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston and a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer Communications Committee, who was not an author on today’s paper. “Children who are treated 10 years ago, their outcomes definitely help us contribute to the outcomes of those treated today.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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