Arkansas Children’s Research Institute receives $2.5 million for cancer survivor research
The National Institutes of Health awarded $2.5 million to the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute for a study to reduce long-term side effects for survivors of the most common form of childhood cancer. The study will consider side-effects from treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer.
Researcher Ellen van der Plas, Ph.D., who also serves as an associate professor of hematology/oncology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine, will lead the five-year study to pinpoint the moments during treatment that may result in long-term neurocognitive issues.
ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer, with approximately 3,000 new cases reported in children each year. Children under 5 years old are most at risk for this type of cancer. This aggressive cancer is fatal if untreated, but modern chemotherapy treatments result in survival in over 90% of cases.
Long-term side effects of treatments can lead to neurocognitive issues, such as diminished ability to concentrate, poor memory, shorter attention spans and other functions governed by the frontal lobe.
Treating ALL can take years, but many young patients are cured before entering kindergarten. However, the side effects can impact academic and vocational success for the rest of their lives.
“Cancer casts such a long shadow,” van der Plas said. Her goal is for cancer survivors to “have the same quality of life as their peers. We want to make sure they’re not facing a lifelong burden.”
Non-invasive neuroimaging scans will be used to study the young participants during their first year of treatment. Capturing brain images of very young children can be challenging.
“We prepare them through play,” van der Plas said. “And we partner with child life specialists to help kids feel at ease with the scanner procedures.”
Children in the study will also interact with an MRI simulator, which helps prepare them for procedures by having them explore the MRI tunnel and sounds in a gradual and playful manner.
The $2.5 million “Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT)” award by NIH recognizes the value of long-term funding for outstanding research projects. MERIT awards can be extended up to two additional years based on an expedited review of the accomplishments during the initial funding period by the National Cancer Institute.