280 cases of childhood leukaemia are diagnosed each year, making it the most common childhood cancer.

90% Survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the most common form of leukaemia.

Chemotherapy is typically used to treat leukaemia, causing significant side effects in children.

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia (US spelling: leukemia) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Depending on the type of blood cells the cancer first starts in, it is called either ‘myeloid’ leukaemia or ‘lymphoblastic’ (or ‘lymphocytic’) leukaemia. And depending on whether it progresses quickly or slowly, it is called either acute or chronic leukaemia.

How common is leukaemia in children?

Leukaemia accounts for about one quarter of all cases of cancer in children and adolescents, making it the most common of all childhood cancers. In Australia, about 270 cases of leukaemia are diagnosed each year in 0-19-year olds.

The two main types of leukaemia diagnosed in children are acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Within these, there are at least 20 different subtypes. Some of these subtypes are particularly aggressive and difficult to treat − these are called ‘high-risk’ leukaemias.

What happens when a child gets leukaemia?

When a child gets leukaemia, their body produces large numbers of abnormal white blood cells and can no longer produce enough healthy blood cells. This causes a whole range of symptoms such as bruising and bleeding, tiredness and fever.

Children with leukaemia usually go on chemotherapy for a full two years, during which time they can suffer debilitating side effects. Even after treatment ends, children often experience ongoing (sometimes life-long) health problems and face a much higher-than-average chance of getting a second cancer.

Thanks to medical research, survival rates for leukaemia have improved markedly over the years. In 1960, ALL was practically a death sentence. Today, the survival rate in children with ALL is up around 90%. But for children with high-risk leukaemias, or those who have relapsed, there are very few treatment options available. Far too many of these children are dying. Continued research is vital if we are to save more lives.

For more information about leukaemia, see the Cancer Australia website.

Please note that, while Children’s Cancer Institute works closely with clinicians, we do NOT treat patients and are unable to provide treatment advice. For questions about an individual child’s cancer treatment, or to find out about relevant clinical trials, please contact your treating oncologist.

“Our research with living models of leukaemia is world-leading, and contributes to an international study that is improving outcomes for kids with this cancer.”

- Professor Richard Lock, Head of Theme, Blood Cancers

Research into leukaemia

Research at Children’s Cancer Institute has led to significant advances in the treatment of leukaemia. For example, we developed a highly sensitive technique (called minimal residual disease, or MRD testing) which allows doctors to identify which children are at highest risk of relapse, providing the opportunity to change or intensify their treatment.

The use of our MRD technique led to a doubling of the survival rate in children with high-risk ALL from 35% to 70% in a clinical trial that ran in Australia and New Zealand from 2002-2011. Today, treatment decisions for all children diagnosed with ALL or relapsed ALL are based on MRD testing.

With continued research, we are confident we can further improve survival rates in children with leukaemia. We are currently working on several leukaemia projects.

  • We are developing new therapies for high-risk leukaemias, including a particularly aggressive subtype of leukaemia that mostly affects babies (MLL-r ALL).
  • We are investigating how childhood leukaemia develops resistance to treatment with chemotherapy (drug resistance).
  • We are testing new drugs in our living model of ALL − widely recognised as the best (most clinically relevant) in the world − to prioritise which ones should go to clinical trial first.
  • We are identifying which molecules and biochemical pathways are critical to the survival of leukaemia stem cells, so these can be targeted with new cancer therapeutics.

For more information about our leukaemia research projects, see ‘Blood Cancers’.

All statistics cited are from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

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