Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

General Information | Treatment Options | Resources

 

Treatment
  • Overview
  • Standard Treatment
  • Clinical Trials
  • Treatment By Stage

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:

  • Hematologist.
  • Medical oncologist.
  • Pediatric surgeon.
  • Radiation oncologist.
  • Endocrinologist.
  • Neurologist.
  • Neuropathologist.
  • Neuroradiologist.
  • Pediatric nurse specialist.
  • Social worker.
  • Rehabilitation specialist.
  • Psychologist.

Regular follow-up exams are very important. Side effects can result from treatment long after it ends. These are called late effects. Radiation therapy to the head may affect the child's developing brain and cause changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory. Late effects of treatment for ALL also include the risk of second cancers (new types of cancer), especially brain tumors. Early diagnosis and treatment of these secondary brain tumors may help lower the risk from these brain tumors. Children younger than 4 years have a higher risk of side effects from radiation therapy to the brain. 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.

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 condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

The treatment of childhood ALL usually has 3 phases.

The treatment of childhood ALL is done in phases:

  • Induction therapy: This is the first phase of treatment. Its purpose is to kill the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. This puts the leukemia into remission. This is also called the remission induction phase.
  • Consolidation/intensification therapy: This is the second phase of therapy. It begins once the leukemia is in remission. The purpose of consolidation/intensification therapy is to kill any remaining leukemia cells that may not be active but could begin to regrow and cause a relapse.
  • Maintenance therapy: This is the third phase of treatment. Its purpose 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 for induction and consolidation/intensification therapy. This is also called the continuation therapy phase.

Bone marrow biopsy and aspirates are done throughout all phases to see how well the leukemia is responding to treatment.

Treatment called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy is usually given during each phase of therapy. Because chemotherapy that is given by mouth or injected into a vein may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to find "sanctuary" (hide) in the CNS. Intrathecal chemotherapy and radiation therapy are able to reach leukemia cells in the CNS and are given to kill the leukemia cells and prevent the cancer from recurring (coming back). CNS sanctuary therapy is also called CNS prophylaxis.

Three 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 spinal column (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 type of the cancer being treated.

Intrathecal chemotherapy may be used to treat childhood ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. When used to prevent cancer from spreading to the brain and spinal cord, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis. Intrathecal chemotherapy is given in addition to chemotherapy by mouth or vein.

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. When used this way, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis.

Because radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and brain development in young children, clinical trials are studying new ways of using radiation therapy that may have fewer side effects, including lower doses and fractionation (dividing the total dose of radiation therapy into several smaller, equal doses delivered over a period of several days).

Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant is a method of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells. A stem cell transplant using stem cells from a donor who is not related to the patient is being studied in clinical trials.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-dose chemotherapy

High-dose chemotherapy is giving high doses of anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. This treatment often causes the bone marrow to stop making blood cells and can cause other serious side effects. High-dose chemotherapy is usually followed by stem cell transplant to restore the bone marrow. Clinical trials are studying high-dose chemotherapy for certain patients, including children whose ALL does not go into remission after induction therapy.

Other drug therapy

Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) is a type of anticancer drug called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. It blocks the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (granulocytes or blasts) than the body needs.

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 clinical trials database.

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Untreated Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Standard treatment of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the induction, consolidation/intensification, and maintenance phases may include the following:

  • Combination chemotherapy.
  • CNS sanctuary therapy with intrathecal chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to the brain.

Some of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for childhood ALL include the following:

  • Combination chemotherapy with or without intrathecal chemotherapy. Radiation therapy to brain may also be given.
  • Combination chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplant using stem cells donated by a brother or sister.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with untreated childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Subgroups

Standard treatment of T-cell childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is usually combination chemotherapy. CNS sanctuary therapy with intrathecal chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to the brain may also be given. One of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for T-cell childhood ALL is a new kind of anticancer drug.

Treatment of infants with ALL is usually a clinical trial of systemic chemotherapy with intrathecal chemotherapy or chemotherapy followed by a donor stem cell transplant.

Treatment of ALL in older children and adolescents usually involves more aggressive therapy (stronger treatments and higher doses) than that given to children aged 1-9 years.

Standard treatment of Philadelphia chromosome-positive childhood ALL is usually a stem cell transplant using stem cells donated by a brother or sister. One of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for Philadelphia chromosome-positive childhood ALL is imatinib mesylate (Gleevec).

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with T-cell childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Philadelphia chromosome positive childhood precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Recurrent Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Standard treatment of recurrent childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) may include the following:

  • Combination chemotherapy.
  • Systemic chemotherapy and intrathecal chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy to the brain and spinal cord.
  • Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant, using stem cells from a donor who is related to the patient, with or without total-body irradiation.
  • Chemotherapy plus radiation therapy for cancer that recurs in the testicles only.

Some of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for recurrent childhood ALL include the following:

  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy with stem cell transplant, using stem cells from a donor who is not related to the patient, with or without total-body irradiation.
  • A clinical trial of new anticancer drugs and new combination chemotherapy treatments.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service