By Rob Mitchum
As the weather warms and the flowers bloom in Chicago, it’s a sign that convocation and various other end-of-the-year events are approaching. One springtime tradition for the Pritzker School of Medicine is the annual Senior Scientific Session, where students on the verge of receiving their medical degrees discuss the research project they have somehow fit in alongside their clinical studies. Founded 66 years ago by radiologist and cancer researcher Leon O. Jacobson (shown at left in a portrait by artist Vern Skaug), the event offers a glimpse at the next generation of clinician-researchers, those who are eager to combine work with patients and work with cell cultures, lab rats and spreadsheets of medical data.
“Leon Jacobson knew that a fundamental core and distinctiveness of this medical school was that students here were curious about making observations and about new discoveries,” said Holly Humphrey, Dean for Medical Education. “I think it’s only fitting that this scientific session bears his name.”
This year’s session included nine presentations and 22 posters from fourth-year medical students, covering a range of science from the laboratory to the clinic to international sites such as Bangladesh and China. A team of fifteen faculty judge, this year chaired by professor of neuroscience Peggy Mason, bore the thankless responsibility of choosing winners in seven categories at the day’s end. But the judges, all accomplished researchers themselves, were up to the task.
“What I like about this session is that it formalizes what we do in the classroom, which is learn from our students,” Mason said. “Our students are amazing, they’re stupendous, and it’s really a privilege to hear their ideas and how they’ve explored their intellectual interests.”
As usual, the projects were split between basic science exploring the mechanisms of disease and clinical projects that examined the quality of medical care. In some cases, the students presented work that has already been published in esteemed journals and covered by national media outlets. For instance, The Medical and Biological Sciences Alumni Prize for the Best Overall Presentation went to Michael Drazer, a medical student who worked with assistant professor of surgery Scott Eggener on studies of prostate cancer screening that were featured in the New York Times. The research team found that elderly men are often given the PSA test to detect prostate cancer long past the age that physician guidelines recommend, and that physicians rarely take life expectancy into account when deciding whether to administer the test to patients.
“We’re screening way too many older men for prostate cancer who are never going to benefit from treatment, and current national guidelines don’t alter screening patterns,” Glazer concluded. “Sorry to be a downer.”
Another clinical inefficiency was probed by Marcus Dahlstrom, recipient of The Catherine Dobson Prize for Best Oral Presentation in the area of Clinical Investigation, whose research focused on patient hand-offs in the primary care clinic run by medical residents. Every year, when a class of residents graduates, they must pass their patient load over to the new, incoming residents. But a 2010 assessment found that one in five of those patients are fumbled in every hand-off, missing appointments with their new doctors and failing to follow-up. So Dahlstrom and his collaborators ran a trial of a revamped hand-off process, with improved documentation and resident phone calls to maintain contact with high-risk patients. During the trial, the researchers saw a doubling of the number of patients seeing the correct primary care physician after a hand-off, as well as a decrease in acute care visits to the emergency room by those patients.
On the basic science side, students presented discoveries that offered exciting potential pathways for the treatment of various cancers.
Osteosarcoma, a type of bone tumor, was the subject of Gaurav Luther’s experiments, which examined the role of a cellular factor called insulin growth factor binding protein-5 (IGFBP5) in the metastasis of that cancer. His research found that IGFBP5 could inhibit tumor growth as well as metastasis formation, and suggested that a component of the factor might be worth studying as a co-therapy in the treatment of osteosarcoma.
MD/PhD student John Wojcik looked at a different cancer, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and used different scientific tools, protein engineering, to find a similarly promising drug target. Working in the laboratory of Shohei Koide, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, Wojcik found a vulnerable point in the malformed protein that causes CML, then screened one billion different antibodies to find candidates that could bind and inhibit that protein’s activity. One such candidate, with the awkward name of 7c12-HA4 (for now), was effective in cell culture and animal experiments at disrupting leukemia progression.
Beyond the scientific and clinical scope, the oral and poster presentations also showed the global impact of the students’ research projects. A poster presented by fourth-year Afshan Mohiuddin compiled Islamic verdicts on end-of-life care, comparing fatawa and qararat from Islamic jurists on questions of withholding or withdrawing medical care in terminally sick patients. Nicole Baltrushes presented an evaluation of the first-ever community-based family medicine clerkship in China, a program created through a partnership between University of Chicago physicians and Wuhan University Medical School.
Even when a research project missed its mark, it was an educational experience. Paul La Porte presented the results of his research in Bangladesh, a component of Habibul Ahsan’s massive study of the effects of toxic arsenic exposure in the Asian country. La Porte found in laboratory experiments that the element selenium could bind and clear arsenic from blood, and subsequently conducted a trial in 800 Bangladeshis to see if daily treatment with selenium could successfully reduce arsenic-associated skin lesions. However, the trial found no effect on skin lesions, and no significant effect on arsenic levels in blood or urine. But La Porte’s takeaways from the disappointing clinical trial were testament to how research can enrich one’s medical education, emphasizing the value of preparation, statistical know-how, and collaboration.
“One of the great things about science today is that it’s very easy for us to reach out to find people all around the world in different groups and different disciplines, and bring them together,” La Porte said. “These collaborations were very rewarding.”