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Cancer That Kills the Young May Have Met Its Match

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Dec. 6, 2000 -- Neuroblastoma, which attacks the nervous system, is one of the most deadly forms of childhood cancer. A few decades ago doctors from the University of Michigan developed a radioactive compound to better view these types of tumors inside the body. Now, doctors from this same institution discovered that not only can this compound help detect the tumor, but it may also help kill it as well.

The compound, which consists of adding radioactive material to MIBG or meta-iodobenzylguanadine, has an advantage over other treatments because it directly targets the tumor cells without damaging normal tissue. Gregory Yanik, MD, of the U of M Comprehensive Cancer Center, presented the findings of the first clinical trial of the protocol at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in San Francisco Tuesday.

"MIBG was discovered at University of Michigan in the mid-1970s. We found at the time that MIBG would be taken up by the tumor almost like a sponge," Yanik tells WebMD. "If we attached a small amount of radiation to the MIBG, the tumor would also take up the radiation. Then we could scan for the radiation. If it was all taken up in one part of the body then we could find the tumor."

If there is no tumor, the compound quickly passes out of the body through urine, he says. The compound targets the cancer cells specifically because the MIBG binds with a chemical called catecholamines produced by these types of tumors.

Neuroblastoma is the third most common form of childhood cancer and strikes about 550 American youngsters annually, according to the American Cancer Society. In infants, this form of cancer accounts for 50% of malignancies.

The average age of those diagnosed is 22 months and in about 70% of the cases, the cancer has already spread beyond its original location before doctors find it. In these cases, experts say the cure rate currently is only about 25%.

Researchers don't know why neuroblastoma forms but they know how it forms. Developing nerve cells, or neurons, that are part of the nervous system controlling involuntary body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, never fully mature. Instead they keep dividing, often becoming tumors. These are called neuroblastomas and usually originate around the ganglia, clusters of nerve cells along the spinal cord, in the abdomen, chest, pelvis, or neck.

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