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Primary brain tumors are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Immunohistochemical analysis, cytogenetic and molecular genetic findings, and measures of mitotic activity are increasingly used in tumor diagnosis and classification. Brain tumors are classified according to histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are important factors that affect treatment and prognosis.
The PDQ childhood brain tumor treatment summaries are organized primarily according to the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of nervous system tumors.[1,2] For a full description of the classification of nervous system tumors and a link to the corresponding treatment summary for each type of brain tumor, refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview.
The term brain stem glioma is a generic description that refers to any tumor of glial origin arising in the brain stem, inclusive of the midbrain, pons, and medulla. The following two histologies predominate:
Approximately 300 to 400 pediatric brain stem tumors are diagnosed each year in the United States. DIPG accounts for approximately 75% to 80% of pediatric brain stem tumors. Most children with DIPG are diagnosed between the ages of 5 and 10 years. Focal pilocytic astrocytomas in the brain stem occur less frequently.
Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain. The posterior fossa is the region below the tentorium, which separates the cortex from the cerebellum and essentially denotes the region containing the brain stem, cerebellum, and fourth ventricle.
In children with DIPG, a classic triad of symptoms (cranial neuropathies, long tract signs, and ataxia) is often described. However, children often present with only one or two of these findings. Obstructive hydrocephalus due to expansion of the pons can also be a presenting symptom. Nonspecific symptoms may also occur, including behavioral changes and decreased school performance.
Focal pilocytic astrocytomas in the brain stem present in multiple ways depending on tumor location. Common presenting symptoms include the following:
Primary tumors of the brain stem are most often diagnosed based on clinical findings and on neuroimaging studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Histologic confirmation of presumed DIPGs is usually unnecessary. However, histologic confirmation is currently performed for research studies and may be more routinely recommended in the future. Biopsy or resection may be indicated for brain stem tumors that are not diffuse and intrinsic or when there is diagnostic uncertainty based on imaging findings. New approaches with stereotactic needle biopsy may make biopsy safer.[7,8]
Children with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) are at an increased risk of developing a brain stem glioma. They may present with a long history of symptoms or be identified by screening tests.
Prognosis and Prognostic Factors
The median survival for children with DIPGs is less than 1 year. In contrast, focal pilocytic astrocytomas have a markedly improved prognosis, with 5-year overall survival exceeding 90%.
Prognostic factors include the following:
Follow-up After Treatment
For children with brain stem tumors and anticipated long-term survival, standard follow-up tends to include interval clinical assessments and periodic imaging with MRI. The required duration of follow-up with MRI varies; it largely depends on the presence or absence of residual imaging abnormalities and the original histology of the tumor after treatment.
Cytogenetic Characteristics of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPGs)
The genomic characteristics of DIPGs appear to differ from those of most other pediatric high-grade gliomas and from those of adult high-grade gliomas. A number of chromosomal and genomic abnormalities have been reported for DIPG, including the following:
The gene expression profile of DIPG differs from that of non–brain stem pediatric high-grade gliomas, further supporting a distinctive biology for this subset of pediatric gliomas.
There is no generally applied staging system for childhood brain stem glioma.
Brain stem gliomas are classified according to the following:
Brain stem gliomas may occur in the pons, midbrain, tectum, dorsum of the medulla at the cervicomedullary junction, or in multiple regions of the brain stem. The tumor may contiguously involve the cerebellar peduncles, cerebellum, the cervical spinal cord, and/or thalamus. The majority of childhood brain stem gliomas are diffuse astrocytomas that involve the pons (diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas [DIPGs]), often with contiguous involvement of other brain stem sites.[2,3]
It is uncommon for these tumors to have spread outside the brain stem itself at the time of initial diagnosis. Spread of malignant brain stem tumors is usually contiguous, with metastasis via the subarachnoid space. Such dissemination may occur prior to local relapse but usually occurs simultaneously with or after local disease relapse.
Many of the improvements in survival in childhood cancer have been made as a result of clinical trials that have attempted to improve on the best available, accepted therapy. Clinical trials in pediatrics are designed to compare new therapy with therapy that is currently accepted as standard. This comparison may be done in a randomized study of two treatment arms or by evaluating a single new treatment and comparing the results with those that were previously obtained with existing therapy.
Because of the relative rarity of cancer in children, all patients with brain tumors should be considered for entry into a clinical trial. To determine and implement optimum treatment, planning by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who have experience treating childhood brain tumors is required. Radiation therapy (including 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy) of pediatric brain tumors is technically very demanding and should be carried out in centers that have experience in that area in order to ensure optimal results.
Standard Treatment Options for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPGs)
While numerous clinical trials are available for children with newly diagnosed DIPGs, the utility of any therapy besides radiation therapy in the treatment of patients with newly diagnosed DIPG remains unproven.[1,2,3,4,5,6]; [7,8][Level of evidence: 2A]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiA]
Currently, no chemotherapeutic strategy—including neoadjuvant, concurrent, postradiation therapy, or immunotherapy—when added to radiation therapy has led to long-term survival for children with DIPGs.[10,11,12]; [Level of evidence: 2A] This includes studies utilizing high-dose, marrow-ablative chemotherapy with autologous hematopoietic stem cell rescue, which have also been ineffective in extending survival.
Standard treatment options for newly diagnosed DIPGs include the following:
Conventional treatment for children with DIPGs is radiation therapy to involved areas. The conventional dose of radiation ranges between 54 Gy and 60 Gy given locally to the primary tumor site in single daily fractions. Such treatment will result in transient benefit for most patients, but more than 90% of patients will die within 18 months of diagnosis.
Radiation-induced changes may occur a few months after the completion of radiation therapy and may mimic tumor progression. When considering the efficacy of additional treatment, care needs to be taken to separate radiation-induced change from progressive disease.
Research studies evaluating the efficacy of hyperfractionated and hypofractionated radiation therapy and radiosensitizers have not demonstrated improved outcomes using these radiation techniques.
Chemotherapy only (infants)
Similar to the treatment of other brain tumors, radiation therapy is often omitted for infants with DIPGs, and chemotherapy-only approaches are utilized. However, published data supporting the utility of this approach is lacking.
Treatment options under clinical evaluation
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients. These trials may be available via Children's Oncology Group phase I institutions, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, or other entities.
Standard Treatment Options for Focal or Low-Grade Brain Stem Gliomas
Standard treatment options for newly diagnosed focal or low-grade brain stem gliomas include the following:
Surgical resection (with or without radiation therapy and chemotherapy)
In general, maximal surgical resection is attempted.[22,23]
Patients with residual tumor may be candidates for additional therapy, including 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy approaches, with or without adjuvant chemotherapy.
Observation (with or without cerebrospinal fluid diversion)
Patients with small tectal lesions and hydrocephalus but no other neurological deficits may be treated with cerebrospinal fluid diversion alone and have follow-up with sequential neuroradiographic studies unless there is evidence of progressive disease.
A period of observation may be indicated before instituting any treatment for patients with neurofibromatosis type 1. Brain stem gliomas in these children may be indolent and may require no specific treatment for years.
Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and alternative approaches for inoperable focal or low-grade tumors
In selected circumstances, adjuvant therapy in the form of radiation therapy or chemotherapy can be considered in a child with a newly diagnosed focal or low-grade brain stem glioma.[26,27][Level of evidence: 3iDi] Decisions regarding the need for such therapy depend on the age of the child, the extent of resection obtainable, and associated neurologic deficits.
Alternative approaches for the treatment of inoperable brain stem gliomas include the following:
Current Clinical Trials
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated childhood brain stem glioma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI website.
Treatment Options for Recurrent Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPGs)
Given the dismal prognosis for patients with DIPGs, progression of the pontine lesion is anticipated generally within 1 year of completing radiation therapy. In most cases, biopsy at the time of clinical or radiologic progression is neither necessary nor recommended. To date, no salvage regimen has been shown to extend survival. Patients should be considered for entry into trials of novel therapeutic approaches because there are no standard agents that have demonstrated a clinically significant activity.
Palliative care is provided for these patients whether or not disease-directed therapy is administered.
Treatment Options for Recurrent Focal or Low-Grade Brain Stem Gliomas
At the time of recurrence, a complete evaluation to determine the extent of the relapse may be indicated for selected low-grade lesions. Biopsy or surgical resection should be considered for confirmation of relapse when other entities such as secondary tumor and treatment-related brain necrosis, which may be clinically indistinguishable from tumor recurrence, are in the differential diagnosis. Other tests, including positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and single-photon emission computed tomography, have not yet been shown to be reliable in distinguishing necrosis from tumor recurrence in brain stem gliomas. Radiation-induced changes may occur a few months after the completion of radiation therapy and may mimic tumor progression. When considering the efficacy of additional treatment, care needs to be taken to separate radiation-induced change from progressive disease.
Treatment considerations at the time of recurrence or progression are dependent on prior treatment. Treatment options for recurrent focal or low-grade brain stem gliomas include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood brain stem glioma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of childhood brain stem glioma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the NCI website's Email Us. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/hp/child-glioma-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389253]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
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Last Revised: 2016-03-16
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