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Medical Students Win Research Competition

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – As part of a program that introduces medical students to the world of research, Wake Forest University School of Medicine recently presented awards to three students for their poster presentations on research projects.

Through grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources, the medical school is able to fund research experiences for about 24 students a year. The students work with faculty members on research projects for two to three months, usually during the summer. One goal of the program is increase the number of physicians pursuing a career in academic medicine, which combines teaching, research and patient care.

At the 19th annual Medical Student Research Day, medical students attended a lecture by a physician researcher from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and were invited to display posters on research projects. Thirty-seven students prepared posters, the largest number in the program’s history.

Michael Toscano, of Holden, Mass., won the first-place award for a project on a common pediatric cancer, neuroblastoma. Toscano and his faculty mentor, Jerry Reagan, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology, explored the effects of an enzyme that helps regulate cell growth and death.

Normal cells are pre-programmed to kill themselves by a process called apoptosis if they grow too fast or at the wrong time or place. Cancer cells do not have this same suicide response. Using animal neuroblastoma cells, the team explored the role that an enzyme, called acid sphingomyelinase, or SMase, plays in this process.

Neuroblastoma cells have low SMase activity. The team created a new group of cancer cells that produce higher levels of SMase. They treated both groups of cells with substances designed to kill the cells – similar to chemotherapy treatment. The cancer cells with lower SMase activity did not die, while the cells with higher activity did.

The research suggests that increasing SMase activity in cancer cells may be a key to making them more responsive to chemotherapy.

As the first-place winner, Toscano can attend a scientific meeting of his choice. Toscano earned a degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts. He is the son of Peter and Deborah Toscano of Holden. Paul Garabelli, of Novi, Mich., won the second-place award for research on the system that regulates blood pressure. Recently, an enzyme called angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) was identified in the heart. Since the exact role of the enzyme is not known, Garabelli and his faculty mentor, Mark Chappell, Ph.D., associate professor of general surgery, explored it in mouse hearts.

Their research suggests that ACE2 plays a strong role in decreasing blood pressure and could be beneficial in developing new treatments for patients with high blood pressure or in heart failure.

Garabelli earned a degree in chemistry with a concentration in public policy and service from Albion College. He is the son of John and Mary Garabelli of Novi.

Lane Graves, of Greensboro, won the third-place award for a project to improve stents, the metal, cylinder-shaped devices that are used to help keep blood vessels open after blockages have been crushed with balloon angioplasty.

Recently, stents coated with antibiotics have been in the news for their improved ability to prevent future blockages in the vessel. Graves and his faculty mentor, Joel Berry, Ph.D., research assistant professor of biomedical engineering, tested another type of stent coating.

The team coated a stent with a protein designed to repel blood platelets, particles in blood that play a major role in clotting. The coating was created by David Sane, M.D., associate professor of cardiology.

In testing a bare metal stent and a stent coated with the protein, they found less platelet adherence with the protein-coated stent. The researchers believe that a smoother flow of blood through the stent can help prevent the buildup of cells that can lead to a vessel renarrowing.

Graves is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric. He is the son of Charlotte Graves of Houston, Texas, and Curtis and Carol Graves of Greensboro.

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