Idaho WWAMI and IWRRI Form a Pesticide Partnership
Multi-discipline Research Team Studies the Link between Pesticides and Pediatric Cancer
When second-year WWAMI Medical School student Camas Curran saw a summer research opportunity with the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute (IWRRI) that involved pediatric oncology – an area of medicine that does not appeal to her – she knew she had to apply.
“I wanted to research something that was outside of my comfort – and interest – zone to help me become a well-rounded physician,” she said.
The experience provided Curran with an opportunity to sharpen her research skills and deepen her understanding of adverse environmental health outcomes.
“Now that I have worked with IWRRI, there’s more of a personal connection to pediatric oncology. It’s more meaningful to me now than it was when I started,” she said.
IWRRI’s Pesticide and Pediatric Cancer Project
IWRRI, which is one of the nation’s 54 water research and technology centers, is working on the first comprehensive analysis of cancer incidence relative to environmental toxicity in the Mountain West Region. Curran, who grew up in Meridian and is considering a career as an orthopedic surgeon, helped IWRRI assess whether there is a correlation between pediatric cancer and agricultural pesticide use in Idaho. For the study, Curran cross-examined data from the Idaho Cancer Registry and the United States Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Project on a county-by-county basis.
“Originally, I was going to focus on just the Snake River region, but I ended up examining the entire state,” Curran said.
IWRRI’s Director, Alan Kolok, welcomed the partnership between IWRRI and WWAMI. He previously directed the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he saw firsthand how environmental health research can benefit from medical students’ contributions.
“We tend to silo into work that we're most comfortable with, myself included,” Kolok said. “But getting into trans-disciplinary research relative to adverse health outcomes is an exciting area of growth for the University of Idaho. Our university has incredible research capacity. To leverage it, we just need to get people talking to each other.”
Joseph Naveen, an IWRRI post-doctoral fellow, recognized the value of Curran’s medical training early in the project.
Now that I have worked with IWRRI, there’s more of a personal connection to pediatric oncology. It’s more meaningful to me now.
Camas Curran, Idaho WWAMI medical student
“Camas is important to this research because she has medical knowledge that helps us look at the types of pediatric cancers we’re seeing in our data through a new lens,” he said.
An example of Camas’s contribution to the team was her interpretation of IWRRI’s pediatric cancer datasets. In the datasets, which included children ages 0-19, an increase of epithelial cancers in individuals 15-19 years old was visible. This pattern was puzzling to IWRRI but made sense to Curran as epithelial cancer is much more common in adults than children.
“IWRRI’s dataset did not illustrate a unique problem to Idaho; rather, it substantiated a larger trend widely known in the medical community,” she said.
IWRRI continues to identify links between pesticides and pediatric cancer in the Mountain West Region and hopes to test significant correlations to confirm whether there is causation. IWRRI estimates their analysis can be completed by the end of next year, at which time they may be able to provide environmental management recommendations to state leadership to help protect public health.
Getting into trans-disciplinary research relative to adverse health outcomes is an exciting area of growth for the University of Idaho.
Alan Kolok, IWRRI director
As Curran heads into another demanding year of medical school, the IWRRI research experience will help shape her approach to a career in health care.
“We know that environmental exposure to toxins have adverse health effects, but it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when looking at a patient’s symptomology,” she said. “I don’t need to be a water resources expert, but it’s been fascinating to work with people who are so that we can share our perspectives with each other. I think this experience will stay with me throughout my medical career.”
Article by Lindsay Lodis, WWAMI Medical Education Program at the University of Idaho
Published August 2020