What causes pediatric neuroblastoma?

Updated: Oct 09, 2017
  • Author: Norman J Lacayo, MD; Chief Editor: Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA  more...
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The cause of neuroblastoma is unknown, and no specific environmental exposure or risk factors have been identified.

Because of young age of onset with this disease, investigators have focused on events before conception and during gestation.

According to SEER data, factors investigated for which evidence is limited or inconsistent include medications, hormones, birth characteristics, congenital anomalies, previous spontaneous abortion or fetal death, alcohol or tobacco use, and paternal occupational exposures.

The vast majority of neuroblastoma arises sporadically without family history of the disease. However, 1-2% of newly diagnosed cases do have a family history of neuroblastoma. Patients with familial neuroblastoma often present at earlier age or with several distinct primary tumors.

Neuroblastoma has been known to occur in the setting of other disorders that are linked to abnormal development of neural crest tissues, such as Hirschsprung disease or central congenital hypoventilation syndrome. Genome-wide analysis of neuroblastoma from these rare familial cases has identified a genetic defect involved in these cases. Cases of neuroblastoma that accompany other congenital abnormalities of the neural crest have been associated with a germline mutation in PHOX2B. This gene is a homeobox gene that acts as a regulator of autonomic nervous system development.

In familial neuroblastoma cases that are not associated with other congenital disorders of neural crest development, ALK mutations have been identified in the germline. [9] These mutations largely occur in the kinase domain causing activation of ALK signaling. Efforts are ongoing to investigate the incidence of ALK mutations across all subsets of neuroblastoma, but initial evidence indicates that somatic mutations of the ALK gene are also present in some cases of sporadic neuroblastoma.

A 2014 study reported that deep-sequencing techniques can identify new ALK mutations at relapse of neuroblastoma, suggesting that patients would benefit from repeated tumor sampling. [10]

De Brouwer et al illustrate the occurrence of the ALK mutation specifically in neuroblastomas. Although they studied a small proportion of cases, mutations were found in similar frequencies in favorable and unfavorable outcome cases. The F1174L mutant was found more frequently in the poor outcome subgroup. [11] This example illustrates the heterogeneity of cancer and the likely possibility that targeted therapies to the ALK gene may be of benefit in a subset of ALK cancers, which may possibly include a small subset of MYC -amplified neuroblastomas. The challenge for drug development in neuroblastoma is to identify upfront high-risk cases that may benefit from ALK -directed therapy.

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been used to discover numerous genetic variations associated with neuroblastoma. Variations in LMO1, BARD1, and FLJ22536 have all been associated with aggressive forms of neuroblastoma. [12, 13, 14] Genomic variations within DUSP12, DDX4, IL21RA, and HSD17B12 are associated with low-risk forms of neuroblastoma. [15]

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