Matilda S
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Treating childhood leukaemia in the 1960s

Matilda S
Posted by
12 Dec 2011

In 1960 Bloodwise (then Leukaemia Research Fund) was founded by the Eastwood family from Middlesbrough, who were determined to make something positive out of the death of their six-year old daughter, Susan, to leukaemia.

At this time children with leukaemia were offered very rudimentary and intensive chemotherapy, usually consisting of a single drug; methotrexate and in some cases 6-mercaptopurine, which was only temporarily effective and had very severe side effects. Survival rates were still below one percent.

A big problem then was that scientists had no knowledge of disease subtypes and all children with leukaemia were treated the same.

The introduction of multi-agent chemotherapy

By the mid-1960s scientists began to realise that combining different drugs could be more effective than using them on their own.

Children with leukaemia were therefore offered multi-agent chemotherapy using methotrexate, 6-mercaptopurinean, vincristine and a steroid called prednisolone. This was a huge breakthrough and started to address the problem of treatment resistance, caused when leukaemia cells mutate and are no longer killed by a particular drug.

This approach led to a significant increase in short-term survival. In fact many of the drugs used then are still used today; the only difference is how, when and in what quantities these drugs are administered.

By the mid-1960s, 25 years on from the first attempts to treat childhood leukaemia, combining drugs meant that around five to ten percent of children diagnosed with this blood cancer were now being completely cured.

The first stem cell transplant

In the later part of the decade another important treatment was introduced - the stem cell transplant.

The first transplant was carried out on a child who was born without an immune system. He received a transplant from a fully matched sibling, which was a complete success.

After this it became clear that for transplants to be viable, the immune system needed to be suppressed. As this involves a period of extremely intensive radiation, stem cell transplants are not used routinely to treat childhood leukaemia, but as a last resort.