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Safer chemotherapy for healthier hearts

April 9, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Kids are winning the battle against cancer. The survival rate is 90 percent, compare that to just four percent 40 years ago. But the powerful treatments come at a price. Researchers may have a solution to kick the cancer and protect the rest of a child's growing body. Daniela Leon battles cancer with a style all her own, but she admits it isn't easy.

"I remember just looking in the mirror and thinking, I have cancer?" Daniela said

Eight months ago, she was diagnosed with a childhood kidney cancer called Wilms tumor.

"I wasn't gonna have pity for myself. There was no room for that," said Leon. "Whatever I had to do to cure this needed to get done."

Chemo and other drugs had a dramatic effect.

"Her tumors got smaller. The tumors in her lungs went away. They evaporated. Then, low and behold, we do an echo-cardiogram and her heart function has gotten worse." Dr John Goldberg from University of Miami school of Medicine in Miami said.

It's a common chemo side-effect. Studies show 20 years after treatment, childhood cancer patients' risk of death from heart problems is more than eight times greater than those not treated for cancer.

"Children that are 30 year survivors have about a 15 times greater chance of getting congestive heart failure," said Dr. Steven Lipschultz from the Department of Pediatrics at Miami University's School of Medicine said.

To reduce that risk, doctors developed a new regimen, adding a drug called DZR to the standard chemo. Five years later, kids treated with DZR showed much less heart damage, but still benefited from the chemo.

Now Leon gets treatment that fights cancer and protects her heart.

"In short, it allows us to continue giving her the chemo that she needs to survive," said Dr. Goldberg.

So she can keep fighting for a healthier future.

Web Extra Information:


About 80 percent of children treated for cancer survive at least five years, according to the American Cancer Society. Unfortunately, the very treatments that extend their lives or even offer hope of a cure can also cause health problems that surface later in life. These health problems -- also know as "late effects" -- are increasing in number as the number of childhood cancer survivors rises.

Most late effects are caused by chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy in particular can affect the proper development of cells in the bones and brains of children since they are still growing. Chemo administered into the spinal column has been linked to learning disabilities that usually show up within two to five years of treatment. These disabilities most often affect non-verbal skills like math.

Heart disease is a serious late effect of cancer treatment that is linked to a class of drugs called anthracyclines, which are used to treat many types of cancer. Radiation to the chest area can also increase the risk of heart problems later in life. Research shows it's common for heart effects to show up in childhood cancer survivors more than 10 years after treatment, and even beyond.


Researchers are conducting studies to see if certain drugs already proven to protect the hearts of adults undergoing chemotherapy may also protect children. One of those drugs is dexrazoxane, or DZR, which is FDA-approved to treat adult cancer patients undergoing certain types of chemotherapy. Scientists believe DZR protects the heart from the effects of chemo treatment by binding to free radicals that cause damage and neutralizing their activity.

DZR is administered as an injection into a vein, with dose varying by patient. According to the American Cancer Society, side effects of the drug include increased risk of infection due to lowered white blood cell count and increased risk of bleeding. Less common side effects include nausea, pain at the injection site and liver or kidney damage.