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Idarubicin (IDA), the 4-demethoxy analog of daunomycin, has had significant cytotoxicity in many malignancies. In previous reports, the alcohol metabolite of IDA, 4-demethoxydaunorubicinol (idarubicinol, or IDOL), had cytotoxic activity and the ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. For this reason, the Pediatric Oncology Group conducted a Phase 2 trial of IDA for children with recurrent or progressive brain tumors. Ninety-one eligible children were entered on this study, with ages ranging from 3 months to 19 years. Patients were stratified by tumor types into 6 categories: stratum 1, low-grade astrocytoma; stratum 2, malignant glioma (glioblastoma multiforme and anaplastic astrocytoma); stratum 3, medulloblastoma; stratum 4, brainstem glioma; stratum 5, ependymoma; and stratum 6, miscellaneous malignant tumors not included in the previous diagnoses. IDA(18 mg/m2) was infused over 4 h and followed by granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) beginning day 5 after infusion of IDA. G-CSF was continued until blood cell count recovery. Cycles were repeated at approximately 21-day intervals until patients developed progressive disease or had completed 6 cycles with stable or improved disease. Pharmacokinetic plasma and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples were collected from a subset of these patients. Response was poor in all strata. Most patients developed progressive disease; however, in 21 patients with medulloblastoma there was 1 partial response, and 6 patients had stable disease (SD) that in 4 patients lasted more than 20 weeks. Grades 3/4 hematopoietic toxicities were the most common toxic events, and 14 infection-related events resulted in hospitalization of patients. Only 1 patient developed reduced cardiac function. The systemic clearance data for IDA and IDOL were nearly identical to those published on patients with leukemia, and the plasma elimination of the IDOL metabolite was substantially longer than that of the parent drug IDA. The peak CSF:plasma ratios of IDA and IDOL were very low. The overall response rates to IDA were disappointing despite periods of prolonged SD in nearly a fourth of the patients. We conclude from this data and from that in nonhuman primates that it is unlikely that IDA, daunomycin, or other related anthracyclines will be useful for treating primary CNS tumors.