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The PDQ childhood brain tumor treatment summaries are organized primarily according to the World Health Organization classification of nervous system tumors.[1,2] For a full description of the classification of nervous system tumors and a link to the corresponding treatment summary for each type of brain tumor, refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview.
Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2002, childhood cancer mortality has decreased by more than 50%. Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors require close follow-up because cancer therapy side effects may persist or develop months or years after treatment. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.)
Primary brain tumors are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Brain tumors are classified according to histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are important factors that affect treatment and prognosis. Immunohistochemical analysis, cytogenetic and molecular genetic findings, and measures of mitotic activity are increasingly used in tumor diagnosis and classification.
Brain stem gliomas are classified according to their location, radiographic appearance, and histology (when obtained). Brain stem gliomas may occur in the pons, midbrain, tectum, dorsum of the medulla at the cervicomedullary junction, or in multiple regions of the brain stem. The tumor may contiguously involve the cerebellar peduncles, cerebellum, the cervical spinal cord, and/or thalamus. The majority of childhood brain stem gliomas are diffuse, fibrillary astrocytomas that involve the pons (diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas [DIPG]), often with contiguous involvement of other brain stem sites.[1,2] The prognosis is extremely poor for these tumors. Focal pilocytic astrocytomas have a more favorable prognosis. These most frequently arise in the tectum of the midbrain, focally within the pons, or at the cervicomedullary junction where they are often exophytic, and they have a far better prognosis than diffuse intrinsic tumors.[3,4,5]
The genomic characteristics of DIPG appear to differ from those of most other pediatric high-grade gliomas and from those of adult high-grade gliomas. Approximately 80% of DIPG tumors have a mutation in a specific amino acid in one of two histone H3 genes (H3F3A or HIST1H3B). These mutations are less common in non–brain stem pediatric high-grade gliomas and are uncommon in adult high-grade gliomas.[6,7] Other recurring DIPG genomic alterations include PDGFRA amplification in approximately 30% of cases, with lower rates of amplification observed for some other receptor tyrosine kinases (e.g., MET and IGF1R). DIPG tumors also commonly show deletion of the P53 gene on chromosome 17p.[8,9] The gene expression profile of DIPG similarly differs from that of non–brain stem pediatric high-grade gliomas, further supporting a distinctive biology for this subset of pediatric gliomas.
Primary tumors of the brain stem are most often diagnosed based on clinical findings and on neuroimaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging.[10,11] Histologic confirmation of presumed DIPG is usually unnecessary. Biopsy or resection may be indicated for brain stem tumors that are not diffuse and intrinsic or when there is diagnostic uncertainty based on imaging findings. New approaches with stereotactic needle biopsy may make biopsy safer.
There is no generally applied staging system for childhood brain stem gliomas. It is uncommon for these tumors to have spread outside the brain stem itself at the time of initial diagnosis. Spread of malignant brain stem tumors is usually contiguous; metastasis via the subarachnoid space has been reported in up to 30% of cases diagnosed antemortem. Such dissemination may occur prior to local relapse but usually occurs simultaneously with or after local disease relapse.
The less common tumors of the midbrain, especially in the tectal plate region, have been viewed separately from those of the brain stem because they are more likely to be low grade and have a greater likelihood of long-term survival (approximately 80% 5-year progression-free survival vs. <10% for tumors of the pons).[1,4,5,6,7,8] Similarly, dorsally exophytic and cervicomedullary tumors are generally low grade and have a relatively favorable prognosis. Children younger than 3 years may have a more favorable prognosis, perhaps reflecting different biologic characteristics.
Many of the improvements in survival in childhood cancer have been made as a result of clinical trials that have attempted to improve on the best available, accepted therapy. Clinical trials in pediatrics are designed to compare new therapy with therapy that is currently accepted as standard. This comparison may be done in a randomized study of two treatment arms or by evaluating a single new treatment and comparing the results with those that were previously obtained with existing therapy.
Because of the relative rarity of cancer in children, all patients with brain tumors should be considered for entry into a clinical trial. To determine and implement optimum treatment, treatment planning by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who have experience treating childhood brain tumors is required. Radiation therapy (including 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy) of pediatric brain tumors is technically very demanding and should be carried out in centers that have experience in that area in order to ensure optimal results.
Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas
Conventional treatment for children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) is radiation therapy to involved areas. Such treatment will result in transient benefit for most patients, but over 90% of patients will die within 18 months of diagnosis. The conventional dose of radiation therapy ranges between 54 Gy and 60 Gy given locally to the primary tumor site in single daily fractions.
Hyperfractionated (twice daily) radiation therapy techniques have been used to deliver a higher dose, and studies using doses as high as 78 Gy have been completed. Evidence demonstrates that these increased radiation therapy doses do not improve the duration or rate of survival for patients with DIPG whether given alone,[1,2] or in combination with chemotherapy. Hypofractionated radiation therapy does not improve survival.[Level of evidence: 2A] Studies evaluating the efficacy of various radiosensitizers as a means for enhancing the therapeutic effect of this modality have been undertaken but to date have failed to show any significant improvement in outcome.[2,3,5,6,7] Radiation-induced changes may occur a few months after the completion of radiation therapy and may mimic tumor progression. When considering the efficacy of additional treatment, care needs to be taken to separate radiation-induced change from progressive disease.
The utility of chemotherapy in the treatment of patients with newly diagnosed DIPG is unproven.[2,3,6,7,9,10,11]; [12,13][Level of evidence: 2A]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiA] Currently, no chemotherapeutic strategy—including neoadjuvant, concurrent, post-radiation survival or immunotherapy—when added to radiation therapy has led to long-term survival for children with DIPG.[15,16,17]; [Level of evidence: 2A] Similarly, studies utilizing high-dose, marrow-ablative chemotherapy with autologous hematopoietic stem cell rescue have been ineffective in extending survival. Consonant with other brain tumors, radiation therapy is often omitted for infants with DIPG and chemotherapy-only approaches are utilized.
Focal or Low-Grade Brain Stem Gliomas
In general, maximal surgical resection should be attempted.[20,21] Patients with residual tumors may be candidates for additional therapy including 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy approaches with or without adjuvant chemotherapy. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Patients with small tectal lesions and hydrocephalus but no other neurological deficits may be treated with cerebrospinal fluid diversion alone and have follow-up with sequential neuroradiographic studies unless there is evidence of progressive disease.
Children with neurofibromatosis type I and brain stem gliomas may have a different prognosis than other patients who have intrinsic lesions. Patients with neurofibromatosis may present with a long history of symptoms or be identified on screening tests; a period of observation may be indicated before instituting any treatment. Brain stem gliomas in these children may be indolent and may require no specific treatment for years.
Current Clinical Trials
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated childhood brain stem glioma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.
Given the dismal prognosis for patients with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, progression of the pontine lesion is anticipated generally within 1 year from initial radiation therapy. In most cases, biopsy at the time of clinical or radiologic progression is neither necessary nor recommended. To date, no salvage regimen has been shown to extend survival. Patients should be considered for entry into trials of novel therapeutic approaches because there are no standard agents that have demonstrated a clinically significant activity. Concomitant palliative care should be provided for these patients whether or not disease-directed therapy is administered.
At the time of recurrence, a complete evaluation to determine the extent of the relapse may be indicated for selected low-grade lesions. Biopsy or surgical resection should be considered for confirmation of relapse when other entities such as secondary tumor and treatment-related brain necrosis, which may be clinically indistinguishable from tumor recurrence, are in the differential. Other tests, such as positron-emission tomography, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and single-photon emission computed tomography, have not yet been shown to be reliable in distinguishing necrosis from tumor recurrence in brain stem gliomas. Radiation-induced changes may occur a few months after the completion of radiation therapy and may mimic tumor progression. When considering the efficacy of additional treatment, care needs to be taken to separate radiation-induced change from progressive disease.
Treatment considerations at the time of recurrence or progression are dependent on prior treatment. Considerations include: further surgical resection, irradiation including 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. The need for surgical intervention must be individualized on the basis of the initial tumor type, the location within the brain stem, the length of time between initial treatment and the appearance of the mass lesion, and the clinical picture.
Chemotherapy with agents such as a carboplatin and vincristine may be effective in children with recurrent low-grade exophytic gliomas.[2,3]
Treatment Options Under Clinical Evaluation
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients. These trials may be available via Children's Oncology Group phase I institutions, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium or other entities.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood brain stem glioma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Untreated Childhood Brain Stem Glioma
Added Warren et al. as reference 18 and level of evidence 2A.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of childhood brain stem glioma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/child-brain-stem-glioma/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
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Last Revised: 2013-01-23
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