A new immunotherapy for babies with an aggressive form of leukemia significantly increases the chances of survival, according to new international research led by the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology in Utrecht.
“These are babies with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Due to a genetic abnormality in those babies, the leukemia becomes very aggressive. 75 percent of babies with leukemia have this form, in the Netherlands that is about three babies a year,” says Inge van der Sluis , pediatric oncologist at the Princess Máxima Center. She led the research into the new therapy.
From 66 to 93 percent
“By adding immunotherapy to the treatment, 93 percent of the babies are still alive after two years,” Van der Sluis said in the NOS Radio 1 Journaal.
That 93 percent is compared to the 66 percent who are still alive after two years after traditional treatment with chemotherapy alone. The research was published last night in the renowned scientific journal The New England Journal of Medicine.
In immunotherapy, the drug blinatumomab binds to the leukemia cells and to their own immune cells, which then clear the leukemia cells. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, has a cell-killing effect on all cells and many more side effects.
Chemotherapy works very well in half of the babies, but in the other half the disease returns within two years or the children still die from the disease or the side effects. Blinatumomab was already being offered to adults and older children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but it was still unclear whether the treatment also worked in babies.
KWF Cancer Control is pleased with the news. “This is of course fantastic. Immunotherapy is one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent years and is becoming available to more and more patients. Steps are now also being taken with the youngest children,” says a spokesperson.
It is a small study, but according to the researchers, the results are promising. Van der Sluis: “This study included thirty children from nine countries. It is a rare disease, so it takes years to complete such a study. In the follow-up study, 160 children from 27 countries will be treated with this drug.”
In this follow-up study, the researchers want to see whether they can replace chemotherapy with immunotherapy. “Now that is being added: first four weeks of chemotherapy, then a month of immunotherapy and then continue with chemotherapy. In the future, we want to see if we can replace the chemotherapy and see how effective two immune treatments are,” says Van der Sluis.
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