Big Ideas

Kevin Krull, Ph.D.

Survival rates for most childhood cancers are increasing. Treatment success is creating more long-term survivors, and that is great news for the nearly 15,000 children diagnosed with cancer every year. Our work in pediatric cancer research is by no means over. Federal funding of this field remains low, and private funding is a critical component to moving research forward. While we continue to develop new treatments and create more survivors, we must also examine a new field: survivorship.

Survivorship research in pediatrics is dedicated to answering essential questions:

  • How can we give young cancer survivors the longest and healthiest lives?
  • How can we address their long-term health concerns?
  • How can we help them with future employment and educational success?
  • In short, how can we ensure these survivors have the best shot at becoming thrivers?

These are just a handful of questions scientists like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s Kevin Krull, Ph.D., are working to answer. With V Foundation funding, Krull is hoping to prevent and treat brain injury in long-term survivors of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“My current research is aimed at understanding and improving brain development in survivors of pediatric leukemia,” said Krull. “I study how leukemia and certain treatment may change brain chemistry to set it on a different course of development.”

Childhood cancer survivors can experience problems in their executive functions – things like mental flexibility, working memory and organization and planning. With problems in those areas, children may struggle in behavior, school or future employment.

Krull doesn’t want to just correct these problems – he wants to find a way to prevent them.

“My research is examining biological mechanisms that start the process of altered brain development,” explained Krull. “If we can understand these mechanisms, we may be able to conduct preventative interventions before the child begins to experience problems and failure rather than reactive intervention to try to fix problems after they develop.”

He is interested in identifying the mechanisms that interfere with the development of neural networks, so he can eventually learn how best to facilitate healthy development of them.

“The grant I received from the V Foundation provided me the resources to extend my work into studying the entire protein profile in the cerebrospinal fluid of children diagnosed with and treated for childhood leukemia,” Krull said. “This will allow us to discover previously unconsidered pathways and processes that disrupt brain development.”

Ballet recitals, baseball games, school plays and everyday life with friends is unfairly disrupted when a child is diagnosed with cancer. It takes a tremendous toll on the kids and their family. With successful treatments available to some of these patients, our focus can move to creating the brightest future possible for these kids.

“Cancer can strike any child, and when it hits, it can leave life-long consequences. We have made tremendous headway in improving survival rates. Back in 1962 when St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened, the five-year survival rate for pediatric leukemia was roughly 20%; now it is near 95%. This is a remarkable accomplishment, but the problem is not over. As more of these children live into their young, middle and elderly adult years, we see higher rates of cognitive, physical and functional problems,” Krull said. “We need more support from organizations like the V Foundation and ALSAC to conduct those research studies to ensure that children not only survive childhood cancer, but they thrive after childhood cancer.”