Background: Radiotherapy is an effective adjuvant treatment for brain tumours arising in very young children, but it has the potential to damage the child's developing nervous system at a crucial time - with a resultant reduction in IQ leading to cognitive impairment, associated 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 malignant brain tumours other than ependymoma, the results of which have already been published.
Methods: Ninety-seven children were enrolled between March 1993 and July 2003 and, following diagnostic review, comprised: medulloblastoma (n=31), astrocytoma (26), choroid plexus carcinoma [CPC] (15), CNS PNET (11), atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumours [AT/RT] (6) and ineligible (6). Following maximal surgical resection, chemotherapy was delivered every 14 d for 1 year or until disease progression. Radiotherapy was withheld in the absence of progression.
Findings: Over all diagnostic groups the cumulative progression rate was 80.9% at 5 years while the corresponding need-for-radiotherapy rate for progression was 54.6%, but both rates varied by tumour type. There was no clear relationship between chemotherapy dose intensity and outcome. Patients with medulloblastoma presented as a high-risk group, 83.9% having residual disease and/or metastases at diagnosis. For these patients, outcome was related to histology. The 5-year OS for desmoplastic/nodular medulloblastoma was 52.9% (95% confidence interval (CI): 27.6-73.0) and for classic medulloblastoma 33.3% (CI: 4.6-67.6); the 5-year EFS were 35.3% (CI: 14.5-57.0) and 33.3% (CI: 4.6-67.6), respectively. All children with large cell or anaplastic variants of medulloblastoma died within 2 years of diagnosis. The 5-year EFS for non-brainstem high-grade gliomas [HGGs] was 13.0% (CI: 2.2-33.4) and the OS was 30.9% (CI: 11.5-52.8). For CPC the 5-year OS was 26.67% (CI: 8.3-49.6) without RT. This treatment strategy was less effective for AT/RT with 3-year OS of 16.7% (CI: 0.8-51.7) and CNS PNET with 1-year OS of 9.1% (CI: 0.5-33.3).
Interpretation: The outcome for very young children with brain tumours is dictated by degree of surgical resection and histological tumour type and underlying biology as an indicator of treatment sensitivity. Overall, the median age at radiotherapy was 3 years and radiotherapy was avoided in 45% of patients. Desmoplastic/nodular sub-type of medulloblastoma has a better prognosis than classic histology, despite traditional adverse clinical features of metastatic disease and incomplete surgical resection. A subgroup with HGG and CPC are long-term survivors without RT. This study highlights the differing therapeutic challenges presented by the malignant brain tumours of early childhood, the importance of surgical approaches and the need to explore individualised brain sparing approaches to the range of malignant brain tumours that present in early childhood.