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Aggressive Chemotherapy Helps Beat Childhood Leukemia

Study finds it reduces death rate by 37 percent in one form of disease

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Aggressive chemotherapy can reduce the death rate from a certain form of childhood leukemia by 37 percent, says a University of Rochester Medical Center study in the October issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study concludes more than a third of children who die from T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia could be saved if they were treated more aggressively with three existing drugs -- methotrexate, asparaginase and doxorubicin.

This aggressive approach includes administering the drugs at much higher doses and over a longer period of time.

T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) accounts for 15 percent of all childhood leukemia cases and is fatal in almost 40 percent of patients.

The researchers tested the high-dose drug regimen in 125 young children with T-ALL and tracked their progress for an average of nine years. The children received drug doses up to five times higher than usual and for durations of several months instead of weeks.

In addition to the drugs, the children received low-dose radiation therapy to the brain, where cancerous cells are most likely to survive chemotherapy and cause of future relapse of leukemia.

Of the 125 children in the study, 93 were cured. They had a survival rate of 75 percent compared to the 60 percent to 65 percent survival rates for treatments using much lower drug doses.

For the most part, patients who received the more aggressive drug treatment didn't experience more medical problems in subsequent years than patients who received lower doses of the drugs.

But the patients who received higher doses of doxorubicin did have slightly higher rates of cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle.

"This study tells us, without question, that we should be using these drugs much more aggressively," lead author Dr. Barbara L. Asselin, an associate professor of pediatrics and oncology, says in a prepared statement.

"Giving these drugs at much higher dosages dramatically improves a child's chances for survival, and does not pose a significantly greater risk for long-term negative effects. The evidence is so compelling that we are recommending that this new approach become the standard treatment for all children diagnosed with this form of leukemia," Asselin adds.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about acute lymphblastic leukemia.

SOURCE: University of Rochester Medical Center, news release, Oct. 3, 2003
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