By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that affects an early form of nerve cells called neuroblasts, which form during embryonic or fetal development. The name neuroblastoma is derived from a combination of two words - "neuro" meaning nerves and "blastoma" meaning a tumor made of immature cells.
The cancer originates in nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system and the cancer cells are called sympathetic neuroblasts.
About one third of neuroblastomas start in the adrenal glands and another third begin in the sympathetic nerve ganglia of the abdomen. The remainder originate in the sympathetic ganglia of the spine, chest, neck or pelvis.
Some types of neuroblastomas grow slowly and take years to spread while others rapidly spread and involve major organs of the body. In some cases, the cancer may resolve by itself in very young babies without the need for any medication or treatment. Sometimes a mature ganglion and nerve sheaths form into a benign tumor called a ganglioneuroma that does not grow further.
Who is affected?
Neuroblastomas most commonly affect infants and young babies. The cancer is most common in children under the age of five and is rare in children over 10 years of age. Neuroblastomas are the most common cancer in infants below 1 year of age and account for around 6% of all cancers in children.
Diagnosis and treatment of neuroblastomas
The cancer is diagnosed and staged using a range of laboratory tests and imaging studies. Staging is an important part of evaluating how aggressive a cancer is, what the patient outcome may be and therefore the most appropriate treatment approach.
Some of the imaging studies used to detect and stage tumors include computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scintigraphy.
The types of treatment available include surgery, chemotherapy with anti-cancer medications, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplant.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc