CRIG teams introduced new test to improve the treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia


Press release of UZ Gent

13 June 2023 (translated from the original press release in Dutch)

Researchers from UZ Gent and UGent introduced a test that improves the treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer. Prof. Tim Lammens: 'The test tells us very quickly whether or not a treatment is working. We are now applying it to all children with ALL in Belgium. Since January, it has also been reimbursed by the RIZIV.' The test was made possible thanks to the support of Kom op tegen Kanker and vzw Kinderkankerfonds.

Silent response to treatment

In Belgium, 70 children are diagnosed with ALL every year. An important part of the treatment is the enzyme asparaginase. That enzyme breaks down the essential building blocks of the leukemia cells, causing the cells to die and disappear.
15 percent of children develop an allergic reaction to the treatment and produce anti-asparaginase antibodies. Those antibodies block the action of asparaginase. Pediatric hemato-oncologist Veerle Mondelaers explains: 'Usually the reaction is clear by typical allergy symptoms, but in a third of these children the reaction happens without further ado. The treatment doesn't work for them, but we wouldn't notice it without a test.'

The right treatment for every child

If the test shows that the child responds poorly to the treatment, the doctor adjusts the treatment with a different type of asparaginase. Dr. Mondelaers: 'To increase the chances of survival of children with ALL, we want the right treatment for every child. This test ensures that we can adjust the treatment more quickly if necessary.'

From development to reimbursement

In 2013, a team at UZ Gent led by Dr. Veerle Mondelaers, Prof. Barbara De Moerloose and Prof. Tim Lammens started a national study to better understand the effect of asparaginase. All children diagnosed with ALL since 2014 provided a blood sample during their treatment with asparaginase for a test in the lab of UZ Gent.
Thanks to the publication of the research results in the British Journal of Hematology (PMID: 32057100), RIZIV has now reimbursed the test since January 1, 2023.

Financial support

Prof. Lammens: 'The research was only possible thanks to the financial support of Kom op tegen Kanker, vzw Kinderkankerfonds and UZ Gent. They make a major contribution to the search for better treatments for children with cancer.'

Further research

"With the development of the test, we are taking an important step in improving ALL treatment," Prof. Lammens continues. "But we're not there yet. Why do some children produce antibodies and others do not? Do we find asparaginase enzymes less likely to cause an allergic reaction? We also hope to answer these questions in the coming years.'


CRIG finances research on asparaginases

At CRIG, we also actively support further research into asparaginases. More specifically, CRIG researcher Dr. Maaike Van Trimpont received a CRIG grant in 2022 (read more...) for her research in which she will test new ways to stabilize and gradually release asparaginase, and thus administer it in a different way. This research can thus contribute to make the use of asparaginase for the treatment of leukemia patients more efficient and optimal.