Ongoing UNMC study looks into pediatric brain tumors within Nebraska

Doctors and researchers have searched for answers as to what causes brain tumors in kids
There's an ongoing study at UNMC concerning brain tumors in young people.
Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 10:28 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Nine-year-old Grace Loftus loves to paint and loves to help animals.

In a few short months, her life quickly changed. In April of 2021, she started having dizzy spells; a few months later came the headaches. By October she was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma.

“So where it was placed messes with her coordination, motor skills, her vision. Watching her go through it is definitely the hardest part, by all means. It is a very traumatizing experience for children,” says Grace’s mom, Kayleigh Weeks.

It’s patients like Grace that have left researchers puzzled for years. Doctors and researchers have searched for answers as to what causes brain tumors in kids.

“So the most common tumor in children are liquid malignancies like leukemia; the second most common are brain tumors. We don’t know what causes brain tumors, but brain tumors can present in a number of different ways,” says Dr. Don Coulter, Professor of the Dept. of Pediatrics, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

An ongoing study at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is taking a look at the epidemiology of tumors, specifically in Nebraska.

“Recently a study came out from the CDC that did compare states. In that study, it showed that Nebraska has the 7th highest incidence of all pediatric tumors. There’s also an entity that looks at just brain tumors, and that national entity has identified Nebraska has the 7th highest incidence of pediatric tumors,” says Dr. Coulter.

6 News asked Dr. Coulter what states ranked above Nebraska; all six are in the Northeast.

“There have been a number of people who have theorized why that’s the case. One: maybe the Northeast does a better job of counting those patients. Two: the Northeast was an area where, back in the day, it industrialized first. So could there be a lot of toxic compounds that are in the environment? Or things like radon, that aren’t being mitigated the way that they are in other states,” says Dr. Coulter.

UNMC researchers started looking at the epidemiology of tumors in Nebraska about six years ago. In a study that was done, researchers identified a higher incidence of all pediatric tumors in Nebraska than what was the national average.

“But at the time it was difficult to say where Nebraska ranks compared to other states because statistics and epidemiology, they’re always bound by time. You can only look at a period of time and say ‘this is what our incidence rate is now’. As it applies to pediatric cancer, the time spreads were only in five-year increments in other states, and we had done a 23-year evaluation that identified that we had a higher incidence in those 23 years than the national average,” says Dr. Coulter.

The study that’s ongoing today is looking closely at specific areas of the state. Dr. Coulter says their data shows a disproportionate amount of brain tumor patients coming from more rural parts of the state.

“As it applies to brain tumors, we do have data that shows that we have increased incidence over what we would expect per the population in areas of our state, where row cropping is done. So things such as soybeans or corn. In that same setting, we do know that the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the high plains aquifer and is an incredibly important source for water to 85% of the state. It’s naturally contaminated with a number of heavy metals, like uranium and arsenic, it’s also contaminate with nitrate. We are definitely not saying anything about causation. What we are saying is that it is an area that demands a further evaluation,” says Dr. Coulter.

The College of Public Health UNMC has researchers that are able to look into this.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest Aquifer in the world, sitting at 185 square kilometers and covering eight states. It supplies 85% of Nebraska’s water.

Dr. Coulter explains nitrate can be problematic to young babies and there are definitive data showing nitrate can be carcinogenic.

UNMC has a number of patients coming from rural areas of Nebraska. As Dr. Coulter explains the only place a patient can get care for any pediatric brain tumor or any tumor, is in Omaha.

Researchers are trying to evaluate the possibility that compounds in the water could be disproportionately affecting families in rural Nebraska.

“Usually that’s a generational occupation. That’s somebody who has lived there for a long period of time. Perhaps long enough to be exposed to something that could eventually, down generations, cause problems in the future. It might not just be pediatric cancer. It could be any type of pediatric disease or adult disease. We’re fortunate that we have the Ogallala Aquifer, that is supports all of our ranching and our agriculture. We’re fortunate that we have farmers and ranchers that want to do that. But one of the questions would be ‘is the water somewhat adding into this situation?’” says Dr. Coulter.

Something that researchers are focusing on is not only the quantity of water from the Aquifer but the quality.

The study is going to take some time but it’s something that could be a step forward in the fight against brain tumors.

“The whole cancer thing, in general, is there’s no specific answers to almost any part of it. So to have a little bit of clarity, would be fantastic,” says Weeks.

In 2014 researchers and families had advocated at the time but there wasn’t much pediatric cancer research happening in Nebraska.

That same year, the state gave resources to start the Pediatric Cancer Research Group, of which Dr. Coulter is the director. Since then, those resources have been used to build a team of over 50 investigators from a variety of disciplines.

“It’s important to us in our epidemiology study that’s happening here, is to not only look at where our tumors are coming from, what could be potential things that could augment that number of tumors that we see in the state, but also what are ways that we can assist in helping these people that have to come from such a great distance to come and get care,” says Dr. Coulter.

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