What is neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a cancerous tumor that begins in nerve tissue of young children. Abnormal nerve cells may be present before birth, but the diagnosis isn’t made until the cells begin to multiply, forming a tumor. Neuroblastoma is most commonly diagnosed in children less than 5 years of age and is very rare after the age of 10.

A neuroblastoma tumor usually begins in the abdomen, especially in the tissues of the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys but also may begin in nerve tissue in the neck, chest or pelvis. Neuroblastoma cancer cells can spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, bones and bone marrow.

Meet Stella.

The Downey family was enjoying the holidays with family in Guatemala in 2017 when their 13-month-old daughter started having unusual symptoms.


Stella, who was treated for neuroblastoma, poses with her family outside.

How we care for neuroblastoma

Because neuroblastoma is rarely seen in adults, it is important that your child receive care from an experienced team of pediatric specialists who focus exclusively on treating childhood cancers. Neuroblastoma specialists and surgeons in the Neuroblastoma Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Hospital Cancer and Blood Disorders Center are known for treating children with the most complex cases (including relapsed or refractory neuroblastoma), as well as for their expertise in delivering specialized treatments, including MIBG therapy and stem cell transplantation.

Our areas of research for neuroblastoma

Your child may be eligible to participate in one of the Neuroblastoma Program’s current clinical trials. In addition to launching our own clinical trials, we also offer the most Phase I studies in New England for children whose disease has recurred through the Children's Oncology Group and the New Approaches to Neuroblastoma Therapy (NANT) consortium.

Our current research efforts focus on improving established neuroblastoma therapies, studying the genetic causes of the disease and developing novel therapies.

Reducing late effects

Children with low- and intermediate-risk neuroblastoma often can be cured with surgery alone, or surgery and chemotherapy. Because of the risk of physical, psychological, social, intellectual and other late effects, we are constantly working to decrease the intensity of treatment as much as possible while still providing the best cure rates.

Recent neuroblastoma treatment developments

Recent developments in the treatment of neuroblastoma have included identification of several genetic findings in the tumors that can predict either a favorable or unfavorable prognosis. These tests have provided valuable information indicating which tumors need to be treated aggressively and which tumors require little treatment beyond surgical removal.

In addition to these tests, our center our scientists are currently studying how to use high-dose therapy in combination with stem cell transplantation to treat neuroblastoma. Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Center is one of only eight institutions around the U.S. investigating the use of umbilical cord transplantation. Also being studied is a new method for preventing graft-versus-host disease, a serious complication that occurs when transplanted cells don’t recognize the tissues and organs of the recipient's body and react against the recipient's tissue. This treatment approach may dramatically increase the pool of potential donors for each patient. Another promising area of research is developing treatments that allow doctors to use a patient's own stem cells to overcome neuroblastoma.

Attacking the genetic cause

Researchers at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s have published some of the early work on the association between neuroblastoma and the ALK gene. Together with researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we are working on therapies that target this gene and may improve treatment for neuroblastoma.

Advanced radiation treatment for neuroblastoma

Nuclear medicine physicians and scientists are an integral part of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s team's MIBG treatment for children with relapsed neuroblastoma (cancerous tumors that originate in the nerve tissues). The treatment, which uses a radioactive compound to kill tumor cells, is available in only a handful of major medical centers in North America. Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s is the only center in New England to offer this therapy.