Describing investigations on such topics as gene expression, genomic data query, and the roots of Parkinson’s disease, the fifth class of interns at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) concluded a summer of research and study with a conference-style symposium Aug. 3.
This summer’s interns benefited from a $380,000 grant to TGen from the Helios Education Foundation, which provided the 50 interns with stipends, sponsored several merit-based scholarships, and underwrote the concluding symposium. The Foundation, based in Phoenix, was established in 2004 to enrich the lives of individuals in Arizona and Florida by creating opportunities for success in post-secondary education.
The day-long symposium at TGen’s downtown-Phoenix headquarters allowed the interns to explain their inquiries and findings via both oral and poster presentations. Each intern collaborated with one or more TGen scientist, and in some instances researchers at other institutions.
As they described their work, some interns also explained the roots of the passions that stimulated their research. Samantha Straus, a senior at Arizona State University, lost her father to pancreatic cancer. So she leaped at the opportunity to study combined drug therapies that might produce vulnerabilities in pancreatic cancer cells.
“My inspiration was Daniel Von Hoff, who worked on my father,” Straus said. In her internship, she worked with Dr. Von Hoff, TGen’s Physician-in-Chief, and Ruben Munoz. Munoz “held my hand the first week,” Straus said, “then sent me on my own.” Together, they tested the impact of various drug combinations on pancreatic cancer cells and found several pairings that seemed to interrupt certain cancer cells’ growth.
Straus explained that with this summer’s work under her belt, she is aiming towards medical school and a career in oncology and intends to persist in cancer research, which she described as a field still in its infancy. “It gets frustrating, and at the same time it’s exciting, that we really know so little about cancer. We’re still working on a lot of the basic questions.”
Another individual tied to the internship program with a personal connection to TGen’s work was Paul Luna, President of the Helios Education Foundation. After Luna’s father was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and standard therapies proved ineffective, Dr. Von Hoff provided access to clinical treatment that granted Luna’s father an extra year with his family before he passed away.
Luna said that the Helios Education Foundation intends its support and enrichment of the internship program to prompt further tangible results in the long-term. “By investing in the education of students who have a strong interest in science, we are investing in Arizona’s future,” he said.
Several students noted that the program had clarified and affirmed their educational and career interest in the biosciences. Lara Cardy, having now completed two summers as an intern, said she will continue her research at TGen through the next academic year.
Unlike one peer, who is taking a year off from college in Pennsylvania to stay at TGen, Cardy will not have to drastically rewrite her academic plans. She already did: After completing a project last summer on the genetic influences on autism, Cardy switched from a speech and hearing science major at ASU to biochemistry.
For this summer’s project, Cardy focused on a much rarer set of developmental disorders, working with TGen researchers to identify mutations that cause congenital disorders of glycosylation (CDG), a step toward facilitating individually targeted therapies for persons with CDG. Cardy said that the technology her work employed could slash by 90 percent the $30,000 per-patient price tag for such mutation identification.
Among the Helios Scholars were students ranging from high school to graduate school—including all three state universities and several out-of-state universities. Program manager Candice Nulsen said almost all of the interns were Arizona residents.
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