Children's Health

Study Shows Radiation May Not Be Needed for Young Children with Brain Tumors

Intense Chemotherapy Just As Effective In Treating Children Under Three Years of Age

Radiation therapy may not be necessary for children with cancerous brain tumors who are less than three years old according to researchers at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The findings come from the 11-year collaborative Head Start Studies and are published in the June issue of Pediatric Blood and Cancer.

Medulloblastoma is a cancerous tumor of the brain that occurs mainly in children. When it occurs in older children it can be successfully cured with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in more than 80 percent of patients. However, children under three years of age typically die from this tumor, or develop severe brain damage because they cannot tolerate radiation to the brain.

“The Head Start studies were designed to determine if we could treat infants with medulloblastoma using complete surgical resection and intensive chemotherapy without radiation,” said Al Cornelius, M.D., oncologist and director of the Brain Tumor Clinic at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “The Head Start Studies found half of children with medulloblastoma remain tumor free for more than five years when treated with surgical resection and intensive chemotherapy without radiation.”

Fifty percent of the patients who had tumor recurrence could still be cured with more chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In addition to the excellent survival of patients in the Head Start Studies, it was found children had normal intelligence following treatment.

Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital began participating in the Head Start Studies in 1997. The founder of the Head Start Studies is Jonathan Finlay, M.D., who now practices at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Other hospitals participating include Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Boston Floating Hospital for Children, Columbia University Medical Center, New York University Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia, the Institute for Neurological Research Raul Carrea in Argentina and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“The results of this study are very encouraging,” added Cornelius. “Additional research is needed to support the initial finding that radiation isn’t necessary for some young children with medulloblastoma. The results from this study and future studies will lead to continued improvements in outcomes and survival of children with cancer.”

The Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Hematology and Oncology Program is one of the largest in the Midwest. The staff and physicians offer comprehensive, multidisciplinary specialty care, coordinated by board certified pediatric hematologists/oncologists, treating infants, children, teens and young adults. Care is provided for a wide range of hematology, coagulation and oncology disorders on an inpatient, outpatient and/or consultative basis. Services are distinguished by membership in national organizations such as the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), a federally funded comprehensive hemophilia treatment center and by active participation in collaborative studies with other institutions like the Head Start Studies.