Background: Over half of childhood intracranial ependymomas occur in children younger than 5 years. As an adjuvant treatment, radiotherapy can be effective, but has the potential to damage the child's developing nervous system at a crucial time-with a resultant reduction in IQ and cognitive impairment, endocrinopathy, and risk of second malignancy. We aimed to assess the role of a primary chemotherapy strategy in avoiding or delaying radiotherapy in children younger than 3 years with intracranial ependymoma.
Methods: Between December, 1992, and April, 2003, we enrolled 89 children with ependymoma who were aged 3 years or younger at diagnosis, of whom nine had metastatic disease on pre-operative imaging. After maximal surgical resection, children received alternating blocks of myelosuppressive and non-myelosuppressive chemotherapy every 14 days for an intended duration of 1 year. Radiotherapy was withheld unless local imaging (ie, from the child's treatment centre) showed progressive disease.
Findings: 50 of the 80 patients with non-metastatic disease progressed, 34 of whom were irradiated for progression. The 5-year cumulative incidence of freedom from radiotherapy for the 80 non-metastatic patients was 42% (95% CI 32-53). With a median follow-up of 6 years (range 1.5-11.3), overall survival for the non-metastatic patients at 3 years was 79.3% (95% CI 68.5-86.8) and at 5 years 63.4% (51.2-73.4). The corresponding values for event-free survival were 47.6% (36.2-58.1) and 41.8% (30.7-52.6). There was no significant difference in event-free or overall survival between complete and incomplete surgical resection, nor did survival differ according to histological grade, age at diagnosis, or site of disease. In 47 of 59 (80%) patients who progressed, relapse resulted from local control only. The median time to progression for the 59 patients who progressed was 1.6 years (range 0.1-10.2 years). The median age at irradiation of the whole group was 3.6 years (range 1.5-11.9). For the 80 non-metastatic patients, the 23 who achieved the highest relative dose intensity of chemotherapy had the highest post-chemotherapy 5-year overall survival of 76% (95% CI 46.6-91.2), compared with 52% (33.3-68.1) for the 32 patients who achieved the lowest relative dose intensity of chemotherapy.
Interpretation: This protocol avoided or delayed radiotherapy in a substantial proportion of children younger than 3 years without compromising survival. These results suggest, therefore, that primary chemotherapy strategies have an important role in the treatment of very young children with intracranial ependymoma.