To explore the possibility that higher total dosage of 'maintenance' treatment may have contributed to the recent improvement in outlook of children in the United Kingdom with lymphoblastic leukaemia, details of the amount of 6-mercaptopurine prescribed during the first two years of treatment were studied in an unselected cohort of children diagnosed between 1973 and 1987. Eighty five patients were studied, 30 diagnosed before and 55 after 1980. The group diagnosed after 1980 showed an 18% improvement in relapse free survival at five years. Their median total dose of 6-mercaptopurine had increased by 22%, whereas according to the protocol it should have risen by an average of only 9%. After 1980 boys were prescribed significantly more 6-mercaptopurine than girls, and had fewer dose reductions because of myelosuppression. These findings support the clinical impression that after 1980 an important therapeutic difference resulting from the new United Kingdom acute lymphoblastic leukaemia protocols was an increase in the amount of 6-mercaptopurine that children actually received as a result of changes in prescribing guidelines rather than dose. They also provide further evidence that boys tolerate 6-mercaptopurine better than girls, which may be related to the still unexplained difference in prognosis between the sexes.
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