Neuroblastoma is one of the few human malignancies known to demonstrate spontaneous regression from an undifferentiated state to a completely benign cellular appearance. It is a disease exhibiting extreme heterogeneity, and is stratified into three risk categories: low, intermediate, and high risk. Low-risk disease is most common in infants and good outcomes are common with observation only or surgery, whereas high-risk disease is difficult to treat successfully even with the most intensive multi-modal therapies available.
Esthesioneuroblastoma, also known as olfactory neuroblastoma, is believed to arise from the olfactory epithelium and its classification remains controversial. However, since it is not a sympathetic nervous system malignancy, esthesioneuroblastoma is a distinct clinical entity and is not to be confused with neuroblastoma.
The "International Neuroblastoma Staging System" (INSS) established in 1986 and revised in 1988 stratifies neuroblastoma according to its anatomical presence at diagnosis:
Stage 1: Localized tumor confined to the area of origin.
Stage 2A: Unilateral tumor with incomplete gross resection; identifiable ipsilateral and contralateral lymph node negative for tumor.
Stage 2B: Unilateral tumor with complete or incomplete gross resection; with ipsilateral lymph node positive for tumor; identifiable contralateral lymph node negative for tumor.
Stage 3: Tumor infiltrating across midline with or without regional lymph node involvement; or unilateral tumor with contralateral lymph node involvement; or midline tumor with bilateral lymph node involvement.
Stage 4: Dissemination of tumor to distant lymph nodes, bone marrow, bone, liver, or other organs except as defined by Stage 4S.
Stage 4S: Age <1 year old with localized primary tumor as defined in Stage 1 or 2, with dissemination limited to liver, skin, or bone marrow (less than 10 percent of nucleated bone marrow cells are tumors).
When the lesion is localized, it is generally curable. However, long-term survival for children with advanced disease older than 18 months of age is poor despite aggressive multimodal therapy (intensive chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant, differentiation agent isotretinoin also called 13-cis-retinoic acid, and frequently immunotherapy with anti-GD2 monoclonal antibody therapy).
Biologic and genetic characteristics have been identified, which, when added to classic clinical staging, has allowed patient assignment to risk groups for planning treatment intensity. These criteria include the age of the patient, extent of disease spread, microscopic appearance, and genetic features including DNA ploidy and N-myc oncogene amplification (N-myc regulates microRNAs), into low, intermediate, and high risk disease. A recent biology study (COG ANBL00B1) analyzed 2687 neuroblastoma patients and the spectrum of risk assignment was determined: 37% of neuroblastoma cases are low risk, 18% are intermediate risk, and 45% are high risk. (There is some evidence that the high- and low-risk types are caused by different mechanisms, and are not merely two different degrees of expression of the same mechanism.)
The therapies for these different risk categories are very different.
Low-risk disease can frequently be observed without any treatment at all or cured with surgery alone.
Intermediate-risk disease is treated with surgery and chemotherapy.
High-risk neuroblastoma is treated with intensive chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, bone marrow / hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, biological-based therapy with 13-cis-retinoic acid (isotretinoin or Accutane) and antibody therapy usually administered with the cytokines GM-CSF and IL-2.