LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Feb. 15, 2023) – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $2.5 million to Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) to identify potential causes of long-term side effects of 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.”

Arkansas Children’s child life specialists use a variety of age-appropriate strategies to help children and families understand and cope with illness, disease and treatment 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.

Recruitment of participants is scheduled to begin in the spring and will continue for about four years.


Arkansas Children's is the only healthcare system in the state solely dedicated to caring for Arkansas' more than 700,000 children. The private, non-profit organization includes two pediatric hospitals, a pediatric research institute and USDA nutrition center, a philanthropic foundation, a nursery alliance, statewide clinics, and many education and outreach programs — all focused on fulfilling a promise to define and deliver unprecedented child health. Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) is a 336-bed, Magnet-recognized facility in Little Rock operating the state’s only Level I pediatric trauma center; the state's only burn center; the state's only Level IV neonatal intensive care unit; the state's only pediatric intensive care unit; the state’s only pediatric surgery program with Level 1 verification from the American College of Surgeons (ACS); the state’s only magnetoencephalography (MEG) system for neurosurgical planning and cutting-edge research; and the state's only nationally recognized pediatric transport program. Arkansas Children’s Hospital is nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report in seven pediatric specialties (2022—2023): Cancer, Cardiology & Heart Surgery, Diabetes & Endocrinology, Nephrology, Neurology & Neurosurgery, Pulmonology and Urology.  Arkansas Children’s Northwest (ACNW), the first and only pediatric hospital in the Northwest Arkansas region, is a level IV pediatric trauma center. ACNW operates a 24-bed inpatient unit; a surgical unit with five operating rooms; outpatient clinics offering over 20 subspecialties; diagnostic services; imaging capabilities; occupational therapy services; and Northwest Arkansas' only pediatric emergency department, equipped with 30 exam rooms. Generous philanthropic and volunteer engagement has sustained Arkansas Children's since it began as an orphanage in 1912, and today ensures the system can deliver on its promise of unprecedented child health. To learn more, visit


UAMS is the state's only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS' clinical enterprise. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 3,047 students, 873 medical residents and fellows, and six dental residents. It is the state's largest public employer with more than 11,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children's, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit or Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.