Background: Neuroblastoma has many characteristics which suggest that preclinical detection might improve outcome. The Quebec Neuroblastoma Screening Project was initiated to determine whether mass screening could reduce mortality in a large cohort of infants. As an early endpoint, we report whether screening could reduce the incidence of poor-prognosis neuroblastoma in children with advanced stage disease over 1 year of age. Methods: All 476,603 children born in the province of Quebec during the 5-year period of May 1, 1989, to April 30, 1994, were eligible for urinary assay of homovanillic acid and vanillylmandelic acid at 3 weeks and 6 months of age. Children with a positive screen were referred to one of four paediatric cancer centres in the province for uniform evaluation and treatment if necessary. Standardised incidence ratios (SIRs) were calculated for neuroblastoma in the province and two similar population-based controls, the state of Minnesota and the province of Ontario, during the same period of time and with similar ascertainment procedures. Findings: Compliance with screening in Quebec province was 91% at 3 weeks (n = 425,816) and 74% at 6 months (n = 349,706). Through July 31, 1995, with a follow-up of the birth cohort of 15-75 months, 118 cases of neuroblastoma were diagnosed, 43 detected preclinically by screening, 20 detected clinically before screening at 3 weeks of age, and 55 detected clinically after 3 weeks of age having normal screens (52) or never screened (3). Retrospective analysis of stored samples confirmed that 49 of 52 patients missed by screening had levels of catecholamine metabolites that were too low to be detected at 6 months or earlier. Based on US Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results data, 54.5 cases of neuroblastoma would have been expected in Quebec province during the study period, for an SIR of 2.17 (95% Cl 1.79-2.57, p < 0.0001). For the two control groups, 43 and 80 cases of neuroblastoma were detected, respectively, compared with 37.9 and 85.4 expected, overall SIR 1.00 (not significant). SIRs for Quebec province by age at diagnosis in yearly intervals show a marked increased incidence under 1 year of age (SIR 2.85, 2.26-3.50), with no reduction in incidence in subsequent years. Limiting analysis to only patients diagnosed over 1 year of age with advanced-stage disease, 22 cases were detected in Quebec province versus 14.4 expected (SIR 1.52, 0.95-2.23). Data in the two control groups show no significant increase or decrease in any-stage disease in children under or over the age of 1 year, except for an increase in early-stage disease in Minnesota children over 1 year: 10 versus 3.8 expected (SIR 2.67, 1.27-4.58). Interpretation: Screening for neuroblastoma increases the incidence in infants without decreasing the incidence of unfavourable advanced-stage disease in older children. It is unlikely that screening for neuroblastoma in infants will reduce mortality for this disease.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This study was supported in part by grant CA 46907 from the US National Institutes of Health, the Quebec Network for Genetic Medicine, Montreal, and the National Cancer Institute of Canada (grant #2691).