Academic Health Sciences Research
Brumley’s research was part of the Academic Health Sciences Summer Research Program (AHSSRP), organized by Macalester, which is run in conjunction with a University of Minnesota initiative called Life Summer Student Undergraduate Research Program (LSSURP). AHSSRP is a research program designed for students interested in health careers. Biology professor Liz Jansen and Science and Research Office director Joan Toohey periodically work with AHSSRP students to find physician-scientists to serve as research mentors and check their progress along the way. Liz Jansen also works closely with an LSSURP coordinator to help Mac students find research placements.
Because I’m an anthropology major, I don’t have room in my schedule to take many science courses beyond those required for medical school. So I thought it would be a good idea to do some summer research to supplement my knowledge of a more scientific aspect of health care.
With some help from biology professor Liz Jansen, I found a full-time paid summer research position working with Dr. Jakub Tolar, a pediatric blood and bone marrow transplantation researcher and physician at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center.
Dr. Tolar specializes in bone marrow transplantation (BMT) for children with genetic disorders. In this process, stem cells found in the bone marrow of a donor—usually someone unrelated to the patient—are infused into the blood of children with the genetic disorder. Since the donor cells don’t have the mutation, they can produce whatever protein the patient is missing. However, BMT is a risky procedure and can result in graft rejection or graft versus host disease.
Over the summer I explored potential treatments—other than BMT—for a rare skin disease called recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (RDEB), which causes severe blistering and can lead to aggressive skin cancer. This disease is caused by a mutation of the gene encoding collagen type VII (C7), which connects the dermal and epidermal layers of the skin. I researched the possibility of using micro-needles to inject cells locally at the dermal-epidermal junction. In the future, the possibility of localized delivery of the cells might reduce the risks associated with BMT.
In a related experiment, I used a protocol to eliminate the cells, leaving only the extracellular matrix—the protein fibers that hold tissues together and serve as a scaffold for cells. I injected cells into the “decellularized” tissues and observed whether they’d grow. In the future, this may lead to the use of gene-corrected skin cells, derived from the patient, to create a bioengineered skin graft to treat RDEB blistering. Because the cells would be taken from the patients themselves, there would be less immunogenic risk.
Working in pediatric cancer research reinforced my interest in pursuing a career in the health field, and observing Dr. Tolar in the clinic working with patients made me interested in pediatrics, a field I hadn’t previously considered.