Germ cells are a type of cell that form as a fetus (unborn baby) develops. These cells later become sperm in the testicles or eggs in the ovaries. Sometimes while the fetus is forming, germ cells travel to other parts of the body and grow into germ cell tumors. Germ cells tumors that form in the brain or spinal cord are called CNS germ cell tumors.
The most common places for one or more central nervous system (CNS) germ cell tumors to form is near the pineal gland and in an area of the brain that includes the pituitary gland and the tissue just above it. Sometimes germ cell tumors may form in other areas of the brain.
Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain.
This summary is about germ cell tumors that start in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Germ cell tumors may also form in other parts of the body. See the PDQ summary on Childhood Extracranial Germ Cell Tumors Treatment for information on germ cell tumors that are extracranial (outside the brain).
CNS germ cell tumors usually occur in children, but may occur in adults. Treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults. See the following PDQ summaries for information about treatment for adults:
For information about other types of childhood brain and spinal cord tumors, see the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview.There are different types of childhood CNS germ cell tumors.
There are different types of CNS germ cell tumors. The type of CNS germ cell tumor depends on what the cells look like under a microscope. This summary is about the treatment of the following types of CNS germ cell tumors:Germinomas
Germinomas are the most common type of CNS germ cell tumor and have a good prognosis.Nongerminomas
Some nongerminomas make hormones. CNS teratomas are a type of nongerminoma that does not make hormones. They may have different kinds of tissue in them, such as hair, muscle, and bone. Teratomas are described as mature or immature, based on how normal the cells look under a microscope. Sometimes teratomas are a mix of mature and immature cells.
Other types of nongerminomas include the following:
Signs and symptoms depend on the following:
Signs and symptoms may be caused by childhood CNS germ cell tumors or by other conditions. Check with your child’s doctor if your child has any of the following:
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Lumbar puncture. A patient lies in a curled position on a table. After a small area on the lower back is numbed, a spinal needle (a long, thin needle) is inserted into the lower part of the spinal column to remove cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). The fluid may be sent to a laboratory for testing.
If doctors think your child may have a CNS germ cell tumor, a biopsy may be done. For brain tumors, the biopsy is done by removing part of the skull and using a needle to remove a sample of tissue. Sometimes, a needle guided by a computer is used to remove the tissue sample. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor may remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery. The piece of skull is usually put back in place after the procedure.
Sometimes the diagnosis can be made based on the results of imaging and tumor marker tests and a biopsy is not needed.
Craniotomy: An opening is made in the skull and a piece of the skull is removed to show part of the brain.
The following test may be done on the sample of tissue that is removed:
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:
Staging is the process used to find out how much cancer there is and if cancer has spread. There is no standard staging system for childhood central nervous system (CNS) germ cell tumors. The treatment plan depends on the following:
Childhood central nervous system germ cell tumors may recur (come back) after they have been treated. The tumors usually come back in the same place as the first tumor. The tumor also may come back in other places and/or in the meninges (thin layers of tissue that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord).
Different types of treatment are available for children with childhood central nervous system (CNS) germ cell tumors. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.
Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.Children with childhood CNS germ cell tumors should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating cancer in children.
Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist and/or a radiation oncologist,. A pediatric oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. A radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer with radiation therapy. These doctors work with other pediatric health care providers who are experts in treating children with childhood CNS germ cell tumors and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Childhood CNS germ cell tumors may cause signs or symptoms that continue for months or years. Signs or symptoms caused by the tumor may begin before the cancer is diagnosed. Signs or symptoms caused by treatment may begin during or right after treatment.Some cancer treatments cause side effects months or years after treatment has ended.
Some cancer treatments cause side effects that continue or appear months or years after cancer treatment has ended. These are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include:
Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the possible late effects caused by some treatments. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information).Four types of treatment are used:Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated.
External radiation therapy is used to treat childhood CNS germ cell tumors. Radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and development in young children. Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can lessen the damage to healthy brain tissue. For children younger than 3 years, chemotherapy may be given instead. This can delay or reduce the need for radiation therapy.Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated.Surgery
Whether surgery to remove the tumor can be done depends on where the tumor is in the brain. Surgery to remove the tumor may cause severe, long-term side effects.
Surgery may be done to remove teratomas and may be used for germ cell tumors that come back. Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body’s blood cells.New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.
Targeted therapy is being studied for the treatment of childhood CNS germ cell tumors that have recurred (come back).Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Current Clinical Trials section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from the NCI's listing of clinical trials.Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Children whose cancer affected their pituitary gland when the cancer was diagnosed will usually need to have their blood hormone levels checked. If the blood hormone level is low, replacement hormone medicine is given.
Children who had a high tumor marker level (alpha-fetoprotein or beta-human chorionic gonadotropin) when the cancer was diagnosed usually need to have their blood tumor marker level checked. If the tumor marker level increases after initial treatment, the tumor may have recurred.
Treatment of newly diagnosed central nervous system (CNS) germinomas may include the following:
Treatment of newly diagnosed mature and immature central nervous system (CNS) teratomas may include the following:
It is not clear what treatment is best for newly diagnosed central nervous system (CNS) nongerminomas is. Treatment of choriocarcinoma, embryonal carcinoma, yolk sac tumor, or mixed germ cell tumor may include the following:
Treatment of recurrent childhood central nervous system (CNS) germ cell tumors may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with childhood central nervous system germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your child's doctor about clinical trials that may be right for your child. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
For more information about childhood central nervous system germ cell tumors, see the following:
For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources, see the following:
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PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Central Nervous System Germ Cell Tumors Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/patient/child-cns-germ-cell-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389502]
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