Childhood Leukemia Overview

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Treating Leukemia in Children TOPICS

High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for childhood leukemia

Stem cell transplant (SCT) can sometimes be used for children whose chances of cure are poor with standard or even intense chemo. SCT lets doctors use very high doses of chemo. The high doses of these drugs destroy the bone marrow, which keeps new blood cells from being made. This poses a threat to the child’s life. But after treatment is finished, the child gets a transplant of blood-forming stem cells to replace the bone marrow. Stem cells are very early cells that are able to make new blood cells.

Types of stem cell transplants

There are 2 main types of stem cell transplants. The difference is the source of the blood-forming stem cells.

Allogeneic SCT: This is the type of SCT used for childhood leukemia. The blood-forming stem cells come from the blood or bone marrow of another person.

Usually the donor is a brother or sister but, rarely, the donor is an unrelated volunteer. Stored cells from umbilical cord blood have also been used for unrelated donor transplants. These stem cells come from blood drained from the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born and the cord is cut.

Autologous SCT: In an autologous stem cell transplant, the patient’s own stem cells are removed from his or her bone marrow or blood. This type of SCT is not used for childhood leukemia, because the risk that the leukemia will come back after treatment is higher than with an allogeneic SCT.

When SCT might be used

SCT could be used for children with ALL whose leukemia doesn’t respond well to the first treatment or comes back soon after going into remission. SCT may also be advised for children with some less common forms of ALL.

Because AML comes back more often, many doctors advise SCT for children with AML right after they have gone into remission, especially if the child has a brother or sister who can donate stem cells. If the cancer comes back after the first round of chemo, then most doctors will suggest SCT as soon as the child goes into remission again.

In any case, it is important that the leukemia is in remission before the transplant. Otherwise, it is more likely to return.

SCT might also offer the best chance to cure some less common types of childhood leukemia, such as juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) and CML.

How SCT is done

Stem cell transplant is a complex treatment that can cause life-threatening side effects. If the doctors think that a child with leukemia might be helped by this treatment, it is important that it be done at a hospital where the staff has a lot of experience with the procedure.

Here is how the SCT process works: Stem cells are collected from either the bone marrow or from the bloodstream. The cells are frozen and stored.

The child is admitted to the hospital and is given very high doses of chemo (and sometimes radiation) to kill the cancer cells. As a result, all of the normal cells in the bone marrow are also killed. After treatment, the stored stem cells are thawed and given to the child as a blood transfusion. The stem cells settle in the child’s bone marrow over the next few days and start to grow and make new blood cells. For the next few weeks the child is at high risk for serious infections (because of low white blood cell counts), as well as bleeding (because of low platelet counts). Transfusions and antibiotics are often used to prevent or treat these problems.

Patients most often stay in the hospital until their white blood cell count rises to a safe level. The child is then seen in an outpatient clinic almost every day for several weeks. Patients may make regular visits to the outpatient clinic for about 6 months, after which time they may go back to their regular doctors for care.

Stem cell transplant often requires a long hospital stay and can be very expensive (often costing well over $100,000). Be sure to get a written approval from your insurer if your child is to have this treatment. Even if the transplant is covered by your insurance, your co-pays or other costs could easily amount to thousands of dollars. It is important to find out what your insurer will cover before the transplant to get an idea of what you might have to pay.

Side effects of SCT

Side effects from a stem cell transplant can be short-term or long-term.

Short-term side effects: Early side effects are those of high-dose chemo (low blood cell counts, mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, etc.) and can be severe.

One of the most common and serious short-term effects is the increased risk of severe infection. Antibiotics are often given to try to prevent this. Other side effects, like low red blood cell and platelet counts, may mean that the patient will need transfusions or other treatments.

Long-term and late side effects: Some side effects can last a long time. Sometimes they don’t show up until months or even years after the transplant. Long-term side effects could include:

  • Graft-versus-host disease (see below)
  • Radiation damage to the lungs
  • Problems with the thyroid or other hormone-making glands
  • Problems with fertility
  • Damage to bones or problems with bone growth
  • Development of another cancer (including leukemia) years later

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a major concern of an allogeneic (donor) stem cell transplant. This happens when the donor immune system cells attacks the patient’s own cells, mainly in the skin, liver, and digestive tract.

Symptoms can include severe skin rashes with itching and severe diarrhea. The liver and lungs may also be damaged. The patient may also become tired and have aching muscles. If severe enough, the disease can be fatal. Drugs that weaken the immune system are often given to try to keep GVHD under control.

You can find out more about long-term effects in the section, “Long-term effects of treatment for childhood leukemia.”

To learn more about stem cell transplants, see Stem Cell Transplant (Peripheral Blood, Bone Marrow, and Cord Blood Transplants). If you’d like information on a drug used in your child’s treatment, see our Guide to Cancer Drugs, or call us with the names of the medicines your child is taking.


Last Medical Review: 11/11/2013
Last Revised: 02/03/2014