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Home > Health Library > Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Primary brain tumors, including astrocytomas, are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Brain tumors are classified according to histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are important factors that affect treatment and prognosis. Immunohistochemical analysis, cytogenetic and molecular genetic findings, and measures of mitotic activity are increasingly used in tumor diagnosis and classification.
Gliomas are thought to arise from glial precursor cells that are present in the brain and spinal cord. Gliomas are named according to their clinicopathologic and histologic subtype. For example, astrocytomas originate from astrocytes, oligodendroglial tumors from oligodendrocytes, and mixed gliomas from a mix of oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, and ependymal cells. Astrocytoma is the most commonly diagnosed type of glioma in children.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of brain tumors, gliomas are classified further as low-grade (grades I and II) or high-grade (grades III and IV) tumors. Children with low-grade tumors have a relatively favorable prognosis, especially when the tumors can be completely resected. Children with high-grade tumors generally have a less favorable prognosis, but this is somewhat dependent on subtype.
The PDQ childhood brain tumor treatment summaries are organized primarily according to the 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.
Childhood astrocytomas can occur anywhere in the central nervous system (CNS) (refer to Figure). Refer to Table 3 for the most common CNS location for each tumor type. Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, spinal cord, optic nerve, hypothalamus, and other parts of the brain.
Presenting symptoms for childhood astrocytomas depend on the following:
In infants and young children, low-grade astrocytomas presenting in the hypothalamus may result in diencephalic syndrome, which is manifested by failure to thrive in an emaciated, seemingly euphoric child. Such children may have little in the way of other neurologic findings, but can have macrocephaly, intermittent lethargy, and visual impairment.
The diagnostic evaluation for astrocytoma is often limited to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain or spine. Spinal MRI is sometimes performed in conjunction with the initial brain MRI to exclude neuraxis metastases.
Computed tomography (CT) scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are not typically used for characterization of suspected gliomas. Similarly, lumbar punctures examining the cerebrospinal fluid for circulating tumor cells are not commonly performed in children with this disease.
Clinicopathologic Classification of Childhood Astrocytomas and Other Tumors of Glial Origin
The pathologic classification of pediatric brain tumors is a specialized area that is evolving. Examination of the diagnostic tissue by a neuropathologist who has particular expertise in this area is strongly recommended.
Tumor types are based on the putative glial cell type of origin:
WHO histologic grade for astrocytic tumors
According to the WHO histologic typing of CNS tumors, childhood astrocytomas and other tumors of glial origin are classified according to clinicopathologic and histologic subtype and are graded (grade I to IV).
WHO histologic grades are commonly referred to as low-grade gliomas or high-grade gliomas (refer to Table 1).
The 2016 WHO criteria began to utilize molecular data in the diagnosis of some tumors because of the accumulation of published evidence supporting that tumor behavior is typically driven by common biological alterations (refer to Table 2). Within glial CNS tumors, this was most evident in changes in the classification of the diffuse gliomas, which were grouped together based on genetic driver mutations rather than histopathological similarities. Two diffuse gliomas are no longer considered distinct entities: fibrillary astrocytoma and protoplasmic astrocytoma. Epithelioid glioblastoma is a new, provisionally included variant that is categorized as one subtype of IDH–wild-type glioblastoma.
Childhood astrocytomas and other tumors of glial origin can occur anywhere in the CNS, although each tumor type tends to have common CNS locations (refer to Table 3).
More than 80% of astrocytomas located in the cerebellum are low grade (pilocytic grade I) and often cystic; most of the remainder are diffuse grade II astrocytomas. Malignant astrocytomas in the cerebellum are rare.[1,2] The presence of certain histologic features (e.g., MIB-1 rate, anaplasia) has been used retrospectively to predict event-free survival for pilocytic astrocytomas arising in the cerebellum or other location.[6,7,8]
Astrocytomas arising in the brain stem may be either high grade or low grade, with the frequency of either type being highly dependent on the location of the tumor within the brain stem.[9,10] Tumors not involving the pons are overwhelmingly low-grade gliomas (e.g., tectal gliomas of the midbrain), whereas tumors located exclusively in the pons without exophytic components are largely high-grade gliomas (e.g., diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas with the H3 K27M-mutant genotype).[9,10] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment for more information.)
High-grade astrocytomas are often locally invasive and extensive and tend to occur above the tentorium in the cerebrum.[11,12] Spread via the subarachnoid space may occur. Metastasis outside of the CNS has been reported but is extremely infrequent until multiple local relapses have occurred.
Gliomatosis cerebri is no longer considered a distinct entity, but rather to be a growth pattern found in some diffuse gliomas. However, this description encompasses widespread involvement of the cerebral hemispheres, often extending caudally to affect the brain stem, cerebellum, and/or spinal cord. It rarely arises in the cerebellum and spreads rostrally. The neoplastic cells are most commonly astrocytes, but in some cases, they are oligodendroglia. They may respond to treatment initially, but overall have a poor prognosis.
Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1)
Children with NF1 have an increased propensity to develop WHO grade I and grade II astrocytomas in the visual (optic) pathway; approximately 20% of all patients with NF1 will develop an optic pathway glioma. In these patients, the tumor may be found on screening evaluations when the child is asymptomatic or has apparent static neurologic and/or visual deficits.
Pathologic confirmation is frequently not obtained in asymptomatic patients; when biopsies have been performed, these tumors have been found to be predominantly pilocytic (grade I) rather than diffuse higher-grade astrocytomas.[2,5,15,16,17]
In general, treatment is not required for incidental tumors found with surveillance neuroimaging. Symptomatic lesions or those that have radiographically progressed may require treatment.
Patients with tuberous sclerosis have a predilection for low-grade glioma development, especially subependymal giant cell astrocytomas. Mutations in either TSC1 or TSC2 cause pathway alterations that impact the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway, leading to increases in proliferation. Subependymal giant cell astrocytomas have been sensitive to targeted approaches via inhibition of the mTOR pathway.
Genomic alterations involving activation of BRAF and the ERK/MAPK pathway are very common in sporadic cases of pilocytic astrocytoma, a type of low-grade glioma.
BRAF activation in pilocytic astrocytoma occurs most commonly through a BRAF-KIAA1549 gene fusion, producing a fusion protein that lacks the BRAF regulatory domain.[21,22,23,24,25] This fusion is seen in most infratentorial and midline pilocytic astrocytomas, but is present at lower frequency in supratentorial (hemispheric) tumors.[21,22,26,27,28,29,30,31] Other genomic alterations in pilocytic astrocytomas that can activate the ERK/MAPK pathway (e.g., alternative BRAF gene fusions, RAF1 rearrangements, RAS mutations, and BRAF V600E point mutations) are less commonly observed.[22,24,25,32]
Presence of the BRAF-KIAA1549 fusion predicted a better clinical outcome (progression-free survival [PFS] and overall survival [OS]) in one report that described children with incompletely resected low-grade gliomas. However, other factors such as CDKN2A deletion, whole chromosome 7 gain, and tumor location may modify the impact of the BRAF mutation on outcome.; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii] Progression to high-grade glioma is rare for pediatric low-grade glioma with the BRAF-KIAA1549 fusion.
BRAF activation through the BRAF-KIAA1549 fusion has also been described in other pediatric low-grade gliomas (e.g., pilomyxoid astrocytoma).[29,30]
BRAF V600E point mutations are occasionally observed in pilocytic astrocytoma; the mutations are also observed in nonpilocytic pediatric low-grade gliomas, including ganglioglioma, desmoplastic infantile ganglioglioma, and approximately two-thirds of pleomorphic xanthoastrocytomas.[36,37,38] Studies have observed the following:
Angiocentric gliomas have been noted to largely harbor MYB-QKI fusions, a putative driver mutation for this relatively rare class of gliomas.
As with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) deficiency in activating the ERK/MAPK pathway, activating BRAF genomic alterations are uncommon in pilocytic astrocytoma associated with NF1.
Activating mutations in FGFR1, PTPN11, and in NTRK2 fusion genes have also been identified in noncerebellar pilocytic astrocytomas. In pediatric grade II diffuse astrocytomas, the most common alterations reported (up to 53% of tumors) are rearrangements in the MYB family of transcription factors.[43,44]
Most children with tuberous sclerosis have a mutation in one of two tuberous sclerosis genes (TSC1/hamartin or TSC2/tuberin). Either of these mutations results in activation of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) complex 1. These children are at risk of developing subependymal giant cell astrocytomas, cortical tubers, and subependymal nodules. Because subependymal giant cell astrocytomas are driven by mTOR activation, mTOR inhibitors are active agents that can induce tumor regression in children with these tumors.
Pediatric high-grade gliomas, especially glioblastoma multiforme, are biologically distinct from those arising in adults.[46,47,48,49]
Pediatric high-grade gliomas can be separated into distinct subgroups on the basis of epigenetic patterns (DNA methylation), and these subgroups show distinguishing chromosome copy number gains/losses and gene mutations.[50,51,52] Particularly distinctive subtypes of pediatric high-grade gliomas are those with recurring mutations at specific amino acids in histone genes, and together these account for approximately one-half of pediatric high-grade gliomas. The following pediatric high-grade glioma subgroups were identified on the basis of their DNA methylation patterns, and they show distinctive molecular and clinical characteristics:
Pediatric glioblastoma multiforme high-grade glioma patients whose tumors lack both histone mutations and IDH1 mutations represent approximately 40% of pediatric glioblastoma multiforme cases.[52,55] This is a heterogeneous group, with higher rates of gene amplifications than other pediatric high-grade glioma subtypes. The most commonly amplified genes are PDGFRA, EGFR, CCND/CDK, and MYC/MYCN;[50,51] MGMT promoter methylation rates are low in this group. One report divided this group into three subtypes. The subtype characterized by high rates of MYCN amplification showed the poorest prognosis, while the subtype characterized by TERT promoter mutations and EGFR amplification showed the most favorable prognosis. The third group was characterized by PDGFRA amplification.
Infants and young children with a glioblastoma multiforme diagnosis appear to have tumors with distinctive molecular characteristics when compared with tumors of older children and adults. The application of DNA methylation analysis to pediatric glioblastoma multiforme tumors identified a group of patients (representing approximately 7% of pediatric patients with a histologic diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme) whose tumors had molecular characteristics consistent with low-grade gliomas. The median age for this group of patients was 1 year, with eight of ten infants showing a low-grade glioma–like profile. The low-grade glioma–like subtype had a favorable prognosis (3-year overall survival, approximately 90%).[51,52]BRAF V600E mutations were observed in 4 of 13 low-grade glioma–like tumors and in 3 of 15 tumors from patients aged 3 years and younger. A second report investigated gene copy number gains and losses and mutation status of selected genes for glioblastoma multiforme tumors from children younger than 36 months. Molecular alterations observed at appreciable rates in older children (e.g., K27M, CDKN2A loss, PDGFRA amplification, and TERT promoter mutations) were rare in the tumors of these young children, and novel abnormalities (e.g., loss of SNORD on chromosome 14q32) were observed in some cases.
Childhood secondary high-grade glioma (high-grade glioma that is preceded by a low-grade glioma) is uncommon (2.9% in a study of 886 patients). No pediatric low-grade gliomas with the BRAF-KIAA1549 fusion transformed to a high-grade glioma, whereas low-grade gliomas with the BRAF V600E mutations were associated with increased risk of transformation. Seven of 18 patients (approximately 40%) with secondary high-grade glioma had BRAF V600E mutations, with CDKN2A alterations present in 8 of 14 cases (57%).
Low-grade astrocytomas (grade I [pilocytic] and grade II) have a relatively favorable prognosis, particularly for circumscribed, grade I lesions where complete excision may be possible.[11,12,57,58,59,60,61] Tumor spread, when it occurs, is usually by contiguous extension; dissemination to other CNS sites is uncommon, but does occur.[62,63] Although metastasis is uncommon, tumors may be of multifocal origin, especially when associated with NF1.
Unfavorable prognostic features for childhood low-grade astrocytomas include the following:[64,65,66,67]
In patients with pilocytic astrocytoma, elevated MIB-1 labeling index, a marker of cellular proliferative activity, is associated with shortened PFS. A BRAF-KIAA fusion, found in pilocytic tumors, confers a better clinical outcome.
Children with isolated optic nerve tumors have a better prognosis than those with lesions that involve the chiasm or that extend along the optic pathway.[69,70,71,72]; [Level of evidence: 3iiC] Children with NF1 also have a better prognosis, especially when the tumor is found in asymptomatic patients at the time of screening.[69,74]
Although high-grade astrocytomas generally carry a poor prognosis in younger patients, those with anaplastic astrocytomas in whom a gross-total resection is possible may fare better,[59,75,76] as well as those with non-H3 K27M–mutant tumors.
Molecular subtypes of pediatric glioblastoma multiforme show prognostic significance. Patients whose tumors have histone K27M mutations have the poorest prognosis, with 3-year survival rates below 5%. For high-grade gliomas in the thalamus, patients with H3 wild-type tumors have a somewhat better prognosis (2-year overall survival [OS], 71%) than do patients who harbor H3 K27M mutations (2-year OS, 13%). Patients whose tumors have IDH1 mutations appear to have the most favorable prognosis among pediatric glioblastoma multiforme cases, while those with histone G34 mutations and those lacking both histone and IDH1 mutations have an intermediate prognosis (3-year OS, approximately 30%). In a multivariate analysis that included both molecular and clinical factors, the presence of gene amplifications and K27M mutations were associated with a poorer prognosis, while the presence of IDH1 mutations was associated with a more favorable prognosis.
There is no generally recognized staging system for childhood astrocytomas. For the purposes of this summary, childhood astrocytomas will be described as follows:
Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50%. 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 previously obtained results that assessed an 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. Information about ongoing National Cancer Institute (NCI)–supported clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
To determine and implement optimal treatment, planning by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who have experience treating childhood brain tumors is required. Irradiation of pediatric brain tumors is technically very demanding and should be carried out in centers that have experience in that area to ensure optimal results.
Debilitating effects on growth and neurologic development have frequently been observed following radiation therapy, especially in younger children.[2,3,4] Also, there are other less-common complications of radiation therapy, including cerebrovascular accidents. For this reason, the role of chemotherapy in allowing a delay in the administration of radiation therapy is under study, and preliminary results suggest that chemotherapy can be used to delay, and sometimes obviate, the need for radiation therapy in children with benign and malignant lesions. Long-term management of these patients is complex and requires a multidisciplinary approach. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.)
Table 4 describes the standard treatment options for low-grade and high-grade childhood astrocytomas.
To determine and implement optimal management, treatment is often guided by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who have experience treating childhood brain tumors.
In infants and young children, low-grade astrocytomas presenting in the hypothalamus make surgery difficult; consequently, biopsies are not always done. This is especially true in patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). When associated with NF1, tumors may be of multifocal origin.
For children with low-grade optic pathway astrocytomas, treatment options should be considered not only to improve survival but also to stabilize visual function.[2,3]
Treatment of Newly Diagnosed Childhood Low-Grade Astrocytomas
Standard treatment options for newly diagnosed childhood low-grade astrocytomas include the following:
Observation, in the absence of any intervention, is an option for patients with NF1 or incidentally found, asymptomatic masses.[4,5,6,7] Spontaneous regressions of optic pathway gliomas have been reported in children with and without NF1.[8,9,10]
Surgical resection is the primary treatment for childhood low-grade astrocytoma [1,4,5,11] and surgical feasibility is determined by tumor location.
In some low-grade astrocytomas, surgical resection can be performed more safely. After resection, immediate (within 48 hours of resection per Children's Oncology Group [COG] criteria) postoperative magnetic resonance imaging is obtained. Surveillance scans are then obtained periodically for completely resected tumors, although the value following the initial 3- to 6-month postoperative period is uncertain.; [Level of evidence: 3iiDiii]
Factors related to outcome for children with low-grade gliomas treated with surgery followed by observation were identified in a COG study that included 518 evaluable patients. Overall outcome for the entire group was 78% progression-free survival (PFS) at 8 years and 96% overall survival (OS) at 8 years. The following factors were related to prognosis:
The extent of resection necessary for cure is unknown because patients with microscopic and even gross residual tumor after surgery may experience long-term PFS without postoperative therapy.[1,6,11]
The long-term functional outcome of cerebellar pilocytic astrocytomas is relatively favorable. Full-scale mean IQs of patients with low-grade gliomas treated with surgery alone are close to the normative population. However, long-term medical, psychological, and educational deficits may be present in these patients.; [23,24][Level of evidence: 3iiiC]
Adjuvant therapy following complete resection of a low-grade glioma is generally not required unless there is a subsequent recurrence of disease. Treatment options for patients with incompletely resected tumor must be individualized and may include one or more of the following:
A shunt or other cerebrospinal fluid diversion procedure may be needed.
In selected patients in whom a portion of the tumor has been resected, the patient may be observed without further disease-directed treatment, particularly if the pace of tumor regrowth is anticipated to be very slow. Approximately 50% of patients with less-than-gross total resection may have disease that remains progression-free at 5 to 8 years, supporting the observation strategy in selected patients.
Radiation therapy is usually reserved until progressive disease is documented [17,25,26] and may be further delayed through the use of chemotherapy, a strategy that is commonly employed in young children.[27,28]
For children with low-grade gliomas for whom radiation therapy is indicated, approaches that contour the radiation to the tumor and avoid normal brain tissue (3-D conformal radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy, stereotactic radiation therapy, and proton radiation therapy [charged-particle radiation therapy]) all appear effective and may potentially reduce the acute and long-term toxicities associated with these modalities.[29,30]; [Level of evidence: 3iDiii] Care must be taken in separating radiation-induced imaging changes from disease progression, which usually occurs during the first year after radiation, but may occur even after the first year, especially in patients with pilocytic astrocytomas.[32,33,34,35]; [Level of evidence: 2A]; [Level of evidence: 2C]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDi]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDii]; [16,40][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Radiation therapy results in long-term disease control for most children with chiasmatic and posterior pathway chiasmatic gliomas, but may also result in substantial intellectual and endocrinologic sequelae, cerebrovascular damage, late death, and possibly an increased risk of secondary tumors.[8,41,42,43,44]; [Level of evidence: 2C] A population-based study identified radiation therapy as the most significant risk factor associated with late mortality, although the patients who required radiation therapy may have reflected a higher-risk population.
Radiation therapy and alkylating agents are used as last resorts for patients with NF1, given the theoretically heightened risk of inducing neurologic toxic effects and second malignancy in this population. Children with NF1 may be at higher risk for radiation-associated secondary tumors and morbidity due to vascular changes.
An alternative to immediate radiation therapy is subtotal surgical resection, but it is unclear how many patients will have stable disease and for how long.
Given the long-term side effects associated with radiation therapy, postoperative chemotherapy may be initially recommended.
Chemotherapy may result in objective tumor shrinkage and delay the need for radiation therapy in most patients.[27,28,46,47] Chemotherapy is also an option that may delay or avoid radiation therapy in adolescents with optic nerve pathway gliomas.[Level of evidence: 3iiDii] Chemotherapy has been shown to shrink tumors in children with hypothalamic gliomas and the diencephalic syndrome, resulting in weight gain in those who respond to treatment.
The most widely used regimens to treat tumor progression or symptomatic nonresectable, low-grade gliomas are the following:
The COG reported the results of a randomized phase III trial (COG-A9952) that treated children younger than 10 years with low-grade chiasmatic/hypothalamic gliomas but without NF1 using one of two regimens: carboplatin and vincristine (CV) or TPCV. The 5-year event-free survival (EFS) rate was 39% ± 4% for the CV regimen and 52% ± 5% for the TPCV regimen. Toxicity rates between the two regimens were relatively comparable. In the same study, children with NF1 were nonrandomly assigned to receive treatment with CV. The 5-year EFS for children with NF1 was markedly better, at 69% ± 4%, than it was for children without NF1 who received CV. In multivariate analysis, NF1 was an independent predictor of better EFS but not OS.
A multicenter, prospective, randomized trial that compared treatment with vincristine/carboplatin with vincristine/carboplatin plus etoposide in children with low-grade glioma failed to demonstrate a difference in PFS and OS between the two regimens.[Level of evidence: 1iiD]
Other chemotherapy approaches have been employed to treat children with progressive or symptomatic nonresectable, low-grade astrocytomas, including the following:
Among children receiving chemotherapy for optic pathway gliomas, those without NF1 have higher rates of disease progression than those with NF1, and infants have higher rates of disease progression than do children older than 1 year.[28,46,55,60] Whether vision is improved with chemotherapy is unclear.; [63,64][Level of evidence: 3iiiC]
For children with symptomatic subependymal giant cell astrocytomas (SEGAs), agents that inhibit mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) (e.g., everolimus and sirolimus) have been studied.
Evidence (treatment of SEGA with mTOR inhibitor):
Treatment options under clinical evaluation
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients. These trials may be available via the COG, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, or other entities. Information about National Cancer Institute (NCI)–supported clinical trials can be found on the NCI website. For information about clinical trials sponsored by other organizations, refer to the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
The following is an example of a national and/or institutional clinical trial that is currently being conducted:
Treatment of Recurrent Childhood Low-Grade Astrocytomas
Childhood low-grade astrocytomas may recur many years after initial treatment.
An individual plan needs to be tailored based on the following:
Recurrent disease is usually at the primary tumor site, although multifocal or widely disseminated disease to other intracranial sites and to the spinal leptomeninges has been documented.[71,72] Most children whose low-grade fibrillary astrocytomas recur will harbor low-grade lesions; however, transformation into a higher grade tumor is possible. Surveillance imaging will frequently identify asymptomatic recurrences.
At the time of recurrence, a complete evaluation to determine the extent of the relapse is indicated. Biopsy or surgical resection may be necessary for confirmation of relapse because other entities, such as secondary tumor and treatment-related brain necrosis, may be clinically indistinguishable from tumor recurrence. The need for surgical intervention must be individualized on the basis of the following:
Standard treatment options for recurrent childhood low-grade astrocytomas include the following:
Patients with low-grade astrocytomas who relapse after being treated with surgery alone should be considered for another surgical resection.
The rationale for the use of radiation therapy is essentially the same when utilized as first-line therapy or at the time of recurrence (refer to the Radiation therapy subsection of the Treatment of Newly Diagnosed Childhood Low-Grade Astrocytomas section of this summary). If the child has never received radiation therapy, local radiation therapy may be a treatment option, although chemotherapy in lieu of radiation may be considered, depending on the child's age and the extent and location of the tumor.[Level of evidence: 3iA]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDi]
For children with low-grade gliomas for whom radiation therapy is indicated, conformal radiation therapy approaches appear effective and offer the potential for reducing the acute and long-term toxicities associated with this modality.[33,37]
If there is recurrence at an unresectable site that has been previously irradiated, chemotherapy should be considered.
In patients previously treated with surgery and radiation therapy, chemotherapy should be considered. Chemotherapy may result in relatively long-term disease control.[28,79] Vinblastine alone, temozolomide alone, or temozolomide in combination with carboplatin and vincristine may be useful at the time of recurrence for children with low-grade gliomas.[28,60,61,79]
Targeted therapy with or without chemotherapy
Antitumor activity has also been observed for bevacizumab given in combination with irinotecan, which, in some cases, also results in clinical or visual improvement.
Evidence (targeted therapy [bevacizumab]):
With the identification of BRAF mutations driving a significant proportion of low-grade gliomas, inhibition of various elements of this molecular pathway (e.g., MEK and BRAF) are actively being tested in ongoing clinical trials, with early reports suggesting substantial activity. While first-generation BRAF inhibitors like vemurafenib and dabrafenib are active against BRAF V600E–mutated tumors, they are contraindicated for tumors with BRAF gene fusions because of the potential for paradoxical activation of the MAPK pathway.[85,86]
Studies of BRAF and MEK inhibitors include the following:
The following are examples of national and/or institutional clinical trials that are currently being conducted:
Tumor tissue from progressive or recurrent disease must be available for molecular characterization. Patients with tumors that have molecular variants addressed by treatment arms included in the trial will be offered treatment on Pediatric MATCH. Additional information can be obtained on the NCI website and ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Current Clinical Trials
Use our advanced clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now enrolling patients. The search can be narrowed by location of the trial, type of treatment, name of the drug, and other criteria. General information about clinical trials is also available.
To determine and implement optimal management, treatment of childhood high-grade astrocytomas is often guided by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who have experience treating childhood brain tumors.
Treatment of Newly Diagnosed Childhood High-Grade Astrocytomas
Outcomes in high-grade gliomas occurring in childhood are often more favorable than that in adults. It is not clear whether this difference is caused by biologic variations in tumor characteristics, therapies used, tumor resectability, or other factors.
The therapy for both children and adults with supratentorial high-grade astrocytoma includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
Standard treatment options for newly diagnosed childhood high-grade astrocytomas include the following:
The ability to obtain a complete resection is associated with a better prognosis.[2,3] Among patients treated with surgery, radiation therapy, and nitrosourea (lomustine)-based chemotherapy, 5-year progression-free survival was 19% ± 3%; survival was 40% in those who had total resections. Similarly, in a trial of multiagent chemoradiation therapy and adjuvant chemotherapy in addition to valproic acid, 5-year event-free survival (EFS) was 13%, but for children with a complete resection of their tumor, the EFS was 48%.[Level of evidence: 2A]
Radiation therapy is routinely administered to a field that widely encompasses the entire tumor. The radiation therapy dose to the tumor bed is usually at least 54 Gy. Despite such therapy, overall survival rates remain poor. Similarly poor survival is seen in children with spinal cord primaries and children with thalamic high-grade gliomas (i.e., diffuse midline gliomas, H3 K27M-mutant tumors) treated with radiation therapy.[6,7]; [8,9][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]
In one trial, children with glioblastoma who were treated on a prospective randomized trial with adjuvant lomustine, vincristine, and prednisone fared better than children treated with radiation therapy alone. Furthermore, children who received lomustine in addition to temozolomide for subtotally-resected tumors, especially glioblastoma with methylated O-6-methylguanine-DNA-methyltransferase (MGMT) overexpression, had a slightly improved outcome. Patients with IDH1 mutations had improved 1-year overall survival (OS) (100%) when compared with IDH1–wild-type tumors (1-year OS, 81%), highlighting the potential importance of underlying biological characteristics.
The use of temozolomide to treat glioblastoma was initially investigated in adults. In adults, the addition of temozolomide during and after radiation therapy resulted in improved 2-year EFS as compared with treatment with radiation therapy alone. Adult patients with glioblastoma with a MGMT promoter benefitted from temozolomide, whereas those who did not have a methylated MGMT promoter did not benefit from temozolomide.[13,14] The role of temozolomide given concurrently with radiation therapy for children with supratentorial high-grade glioma appears comparable to the outcome seen in children treated with nitrosourea-based therapy  and again demonstrated an EFS advantage for those children without MGMT overexpression. The use of adjuvant bevacizumab after radiation therapy does not prolong OS or progression-free survival in pediatric patients with newly diagnosed high-grade gliomas.
Younger children may benefit from chemotherapy or consolidation with high-dose chemotherapy to delay, modify, or, in selected cases, obviate the need for radiation therapy.[17,18,19,20]
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients. These trials may be available via the Children's Oncology Group (COG), the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, or other entities. Information about National Cancer Institute (NCI)–supported clinical trials can be found on the NCI website. For information about clinical trials sponsored by other organizations, refer to the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Treatment of Recurrent Childhood High-Grade Astrocytomas
Most patients with high-grade astrocytomas or gliomas will eventually have tumor recurrence, usually within 3 years of original diagnosis, but some patients recur many years after initial treatment. Disease may recur at the primary tumor site, at the margin of the resection/radiation bed, or at noncontiguous central nervous system sites. Systemic relapse rarely occurs.
At the time of recurrence, a complete evaluation for extent of relapse is indicated for all malignant tumors. Biopsy or surgical resection may be necessary for confirmation of relapse because other entities, such as secondary tumor and treatment-related brain necrosis, may be clinically indistinguishable from tumor recurrence.
Treatment options for recurrent childhood high-grade astrocytomas include the following:
The utility of surgical intervention must be individualized on the basis of the following:
Patients for whom initial treatment fails may benefit from additional treatment, including entry into clinical trials of novel therapeutic approaches. High-dose, marrow-ablative chemotherapy with hematopoietic SCT may be effective in a highly selected subset of patients with minimal residual disease at time of recurrence.; [Level of evidence: 3iiiA] However, the results of previous clinical trials that tested various targeted and combination chemotherapies have largely failed to demonstrate convincing benefits for enrolled patients.[24,25,26]
Molecular targets for recurrent high-grade gliomas are limited. BRAF V600E mutations are present in a small subset of these patients, and a small number of cases have responded to BRAF inhibitors. A case report documented a complete response to the BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib in a patient with recurrent BRAF V600–mutated glioblastoma. A phase I study reported in an abstract that eight children with progressive BRAF V600E high-grade gliomas were treated with dabrafenib and demonstrated three complete responses, three partial responses, and two progressive disease responses.
The role of immune checkpoint inhibition in the treatment of children with recurrent high-grade astrocytoma is currently under study. Children with biallelic mismatch repair deficiency have a very high mutational burden and neoantigen expression and are at risk of developing a variety of cancers, including hematologic malignancies, gastrointestinal cancers, and brain tumors. The high mutation and neoantigen load has been correlated with improved response to immune checkpoint inhibition. Early case reports have demonstrated clinical and radiographic responses in children who are treated with an anti–programmed death-1 (anti–PD-1) inhibitor.
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients. These trials may be available via the COG, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, or other entities. Information about NCI-supported clinical trials can be found on the NCI website. For information about clinical trials sponsored by other organizations, refer to the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
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.
General Information About Childhood Astrocytomas
Added text to state that for high-grade gliomas in the thalamus, patients with H3 wild-type tumors have a somewhat better prognosis than do patients who harbor H3 K27M mutations (cited Karremann et al. as reference 77).
Treatment of Childhood Low-Grade Astrocytomas
Added Tsang et al. as reference 26.
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 astrocytomas. 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 Astrocytomas 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 Astrocytomas Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/hp/child-astrocytoma-treament-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389382]
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.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov website can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the website's Email Us.
Last Revised: 2019-08-15
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