Late cardiac effects of doxorubicin therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia in childhood

N Engl J Med. 1991 Mar 21;324(12):808-15. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199103213241205.


Background: Cardiotoxicity is a recognized complication of doxorubicin therapy, but the long-term effects of doxorubicin are not well documented. We therefore assessed the cardiac status of 115 children who had been treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia with doxorubicin 1 to 15 years earlier in whom the disease was in continuous remission.

Methods: Eighteen patients received one dose of doxorubicin (45 mg per square meter of body-surface area), and 97 received multiple doses totaling 228 to 550 mg per square meter (median, 360). The median interval between the end of treatment and the cardiac evaluation was 6.4 years. Our evaluation consisted of a history, 24-hour ambulatory electrocardiographic recording, exercise testing, and echocardiography.

Results: Fifty-seven percent of the patients had abnormalities of left ventricular afterload (measured as end-systolic wall stress) or contractility (measured as the stress-velocity index). The cumulative dose of doxorubicin was the most significant predictor of abnormal cardiac function (P less than 0.002). Seventeen percent of patients who received one dose of doxorubicin had slightly elevated age-adjusted afterload, and none had decreased contractility. In contrast, 65 percent of patients who received at least 228 mg of doxorubicin per square meter had increased afterload (59 percent of patients), decreased contractility (23 percent), or both. Increased afterload was due to reduced ventricular wall thickness, not to hypertension or ventricular dilatation. In multivariate analyses restricted to patients who received at least 228 mg of doxorubicin per square meter, the only significant predictive factors were a higher cumulative dose (P = 0.01), which predicted decreased contractility, and an age of less than four years at treatment (P = 0.003), which predicted increased afterload. Afterload increased progressively in 24 of 34 patients evaluated serially (71 percent). Reported symptoms correlated poorly with indexes of exercise tolerance or ventricular function. Eleven patients had congestive heart failure within one year of treatment with doxorubicin; five of them had recurrent heart failure 3.7 to 10.3 years after completing doxorubicin treatment, and two required heart transplantation. No patient had late heart failure as a new event.

Conclusions: Doxorubicin therapy in childhood impairs myocardial growth in a dose-related fashion and results in a progressive increase in left ventricular afterload sometimes accompanied by reduced contractility. We hypothesize that the loss of myocytes during doxorubicin therapy in childhood might result in inadequate left ventricular mass and clinically important heart disease in later years.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Doxorubicin / adverse effects*
  • Echocardiography
  • Electrocardiography, Ambulatory
  • Exercise Test
  • Heart Failure / chemically induced*
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Myocardial Contraction / drug effects
  • Myocardium / pathology
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / drug therapy*
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / physiopathology
  • Risk Factors
  • Stroke Volume
  • Ventricular Function, Left / physiology


  • Doxorubicin