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How conquering a rare leukemia in children revolutionized cancer care for millions

Marie McCullough, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

Fifty years ago, children with an aggressive form of leukemia went from diagnosis to death in a few months, as the disease rampaged through their lymph nodes, spleens, livers, and nervous systems.

Today, 90% of children with the blood malignancy, called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), are cured.

That success story -- one with deep Philadelphia roots -- is even more phenomenal than it sounds. While ALL accounts for almost a third of pediatric cancers, it is a rare cancer overall, with about 2,900 annual diagnoses in the United States. Yet this uncommon malignancy is the tie that binds giants of oncology research, scientific breakthroughs, revolutionary drugs, and startling philanthropy, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that became an acclaimed PBS documentary series.

"The road to curing most children with ALL may be the greatest success story in the history of cancer," declared an American Society of Hematology history article.

Recently, a new chapter was added. An expert consensus panel released the first international treatment guidelines for the disease, because most children are no longer being enrolled in clinical studies aimed at finding the best approaches.

In celebration of this inspiring story, here are some historical highlights.

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THE FIRST EFFECTIVE THERAPY

Sidney Farber, for whom Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is named, is considered the father of modern chemotherapy. Besides being a scientific innovator, he was a genius at advocacy and fund-raising, and his collaboration with notables including philanthropist Mary Lasker led to a quadrupling of the National Cancer Institute's budget between 1957 and 1967.

But in the early 1940s, Farber was stymied. The young pathologist at Boston Children's Hospital couldn't find anything to help the kids dying on the leukemia ward.

He knew that studies during World War II had shown folic acid, an essential vitamin, could cure certain anemias that were caused by a deficiency of healthy red blood cells.

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