Making strides in childhood leukemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common cancer seen in children, but luckily remains fairly rare. Thanks to research and developments over the last few decades, a diagnosis of leukemia carries a generally excellent prognosis.

Clinical trials have shown us how to improve survival, minimize side effects, and tailor therapy to meet the needs of each individual patient. Treatment offered today at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger is a step toward personalized medicine. This means that every child is evaluated independently and given a chemotherapy plan to match their exact disease. With this personalized therapy, survival for childhood ALL is higher than 90 percent.

A unique challenge

Almost all cancers carry certain genetic changes that we understand more and more all the time. Many of these genetic changes will contribute to the formation of the cancer, but they also present targets for promising new drugs to seek out. By using these types of targeted therapies, patients can avoid the toxic side effects of conventional chemotherapy.

For decades, bone marrow transplant has been the ultimate therapy for patients who face a relapse of ALL. This may not be the case in the future. New medications are being developed every year that target specific parts of leukemia cells both from a genetic standpoint and from an immune standpoint.

Using the patient’s own immune system to fight off cancer has been a goal for years, and we have taken big steps in that direction. In the last few years, several trials have been successful in this approach. Currently, this therapy removes part of the patient’s immune system and modifies it to recognize the leukemia cells. After the lab component of this therapy is complete, the modified cells are placed back into the child’s body to help fight the leukemia.

With a better understanding of how to personalize therapy for patients, including the use of targeted therapy and immune-based therapy, the future of leukemia looks bright.

Through a membership in the Children’s Oncology Group, Children’s Hospital at Erlanger is able to offer these therapies here in Chattanooga. The diagnosis of any childhood cancer is stressful and scary, but traveling long distances to receive that therapy is an unnecessary added stress. That’s why we’re committed to offering advanced care right here at home.

Need a pediatrician? Find one here.