Finding Genes to Fight Cancer: Kimmy Leverenz's Summer Internship
By Kimmy Leverenz, '13
Almost every day, I look at my watch, feeling like I have been there for a few hours, and all of a sudden it is 5 o'clock. I also really like the idea that the work I am doing could potentially help a great deal of people, one reason I want to go into medicine. I have been interning this summer at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor. It's an amazing experience for an undergraduate student and I feel very lucky to have been awarded this opportunity!
Most importantly, the skills I have gained from this experience are invaluable to my goal for a career in medicine. I have learned how to thaw, treat, and grow cell cultures, and then isolate their RNA. My research lab doesn't come with answers in the back of a book, or correct or incorrect direction to take at each step. I even used to hate using a microscope in class, but in the research lab, I've really grown to like it.
There are only eight students in the Cancer Research Summer Internship Program and we all work in different labs, researching many types of cancer. I work directly with a medical school professor in the Thoracic Surgery department, dealing with esophageal and lung cancer.
Esophageal cancer is a deadly disease with a survival rate of less than 10% after five years. The prevalence of esophageal cancer is increasing along with the large increase in obesity. There are two types of tumors that can develop: squamous and adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas are associated with a condition called Barrett's esophagus, the result of acid reflux damage to the esophageal lining. A new lining produces mucus and is more likely to develop tumors.
The very first day, my mentor and I picked up surgery samples from the Cardiovascular Center. We spent two weeks isolating RNA from 102 tumor samples and compared it to each patient's survival information. This way, we could see immediate results of any genes that were over-expressed in the tumor and could look for genes that were present in the poorest-outcome group.
Another big project I have helped with is researching the genes that are high in tumors and not in Barrett's esophagus. Using Google, I searched for any inhibitors of those genes. From there, I looked to see if there were any current drugs on the market that could be potential targets to use for therapy.
Although my internship is heavily science-based, there are definitely areas that can be tied back to the business aspect of the job. I have seen firsthand the difficulty of getting funding to continue and complete research experiments. In order to gain necessary funding, ideas need to be creative and innovative, along with having a clinical aspect tied in. In the end, everything comes down to the funding available.
When I graduate from Albion I plan to go to medical school, so this experience is helping to put me in the right direction. Many medical students don't learn the skills that I am developing now until much later in their career and I feel like I have a leg up already. On the first day, my mentor told me to think of this internship as a learning experience, not a job. This couldn't be more true. I am very grateful for this experience!