Jennifer Wang and Catherine Wallace were roommates at Georgia Tech during their undergraduate studies and on Monday shared a corner in the lobby of the J. Harold Harrison Education Commons Building, where the second-year students at Medical College of Georgia showed off their summer research projects into very different fields of medicine.
They were among the 156 of their class – nearly 70 percent – who spent their summers in a lab doing research after their first year of medical school and presented their work during Medical Scholars Research Day at MCG at Augusta University. Wang worked with Dr. Ted Johnson, a pediatric oncologist and researcher, who is delving into an enzyme that has a unique history at MCG and is the basis for a clinical trial that is providing renewed hope for children with brain tumors who have run out of options at other hospitals.
Called indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase or IDO, its function in immune suppression was first described by Drs. David Munn and Andrew Mellor at MCG. Johnson has been there practically from the beginning, working with Munn on establishing the use of IDO by tumors and working on his doctorate on IDO with Mellor as his advisor.
Wang, whose work this summer was supported in part by Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for childhood cancer, not only got to help Johnson’s lab tease out the mechanisms of how tumors use IDO to suppress the immune response but also got a chance to meet a number of the patients in the clinical trial. She saw the impact it had on their lives and their families and it reinforced to her the critical role that research plays in improving medicine and clinical care.
“Being able to understand where breakthroughs and innovations are coming from helps you become a better physician and ultimately to be able to treat your own patients better,” Wang said. “You want to be on the cutting edge of everything and give your patients the best treatment there is to offer. IDO is a good example, especially in their lab, of translational medicine, of actually bringing something you found in the lab, on the bench, to the bedside.”
Though she has a long way to go before deciding what kind of medicine she would like to practice, Wang is strongly leaning toward oncology now after working with Johnson.
“I think getting to meet all of his patients this summer really kind of sealed the deal for me,” she said.
Wallace worked at Duke University School of Medicine over the summer helping a neurosurgeon and his team develop a laser that could allow the surgeon to distinguish between cancerous and healthy brain tissue based on how they give off fluorescent light. She developed a gel that not only contains normal brain components like fat droplets and a component of red blood cells but also two fluorescent molecules more commonly found in cancer.
The gel could help the Duke team determine how accurate the laser is in detecting cancer and whether it can tell them what to zap and what to leave alone, Wallace said. The advantage would be that it could be used during surgery “right then and there” instead of pausing for other imaging or testing, she said. It allowed Wallace to use both her engineering background and her new medical knowledge in a way she found intriguing.
“I didn’t know that I would be able to mix the two so well,” Wallace said. “And I was really glad to have this opportunity to get back involved with engineering, which I haven’t done in a long time. I guess in a year, which feels like a long time. Then again, I had the medical background from a year in medical school to understand what is happening in an OR, what needs to be decided and how we are going to decide this and how this can affect patient outcomes.”
This experience, as with Wang, may have changed her career arc to consider more biomedical engineering, which she sees as becoming increasingly integrated into clinical care.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I would be interested in clinical research,” Wallace said. “I love seeing patients but I also found a passion for engineering and biomedical devices. I’ll probably be a physician-scientist.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213