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Getting an early start on cancer research

Breelyn Karno is shown at her work station at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where she worked this summer. Submitted photo1 / 2
Kate Johnson is pictured at the station she used at Mayo Clinic this summer.2 / 2

Breelyn Karno and Kate Johnson are just over a year removed from their studies at New Richmond High School.

In the short time since they've graduated, they both have become deeply involved in medical research. Both spent their summers doing internships at prestigious medical facilities. Karno was an intern with the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston. Johnson did her internship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Both young women have a keen interest in cancer research. Karno spent her summer at Dana Farber doing research into brain cancer. Johnson's internship involved the study of polycystic kidney disease. During the school year at North Dakota State University, she is involved in cancer studies.

Breelyn Karno

Karno graduated from NRHS in 2016 and quickly jumped into her studies at Williams College in Massachusetts. She said she plans to be a biology major, though majors can't be declared at Williams until after a student's sophomore year.

Last winter, Karno heard about a program called CURE (Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences). Through that program she was able to arrange an internship with the Dana Farber Center.

"I've wanted to work at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute since I was nine," Karno said. "When I was in third grade my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ever since then, I've wanted to do cancer research."

The Dana Farber Cancer Institute is part of the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, a large network of hospitals and universities throughout the Boston area that combine their efforts in cancer research. Much of Karno's summer work was done at another DF/HCC location, the Center for Genomic Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her studies were based around signaling pathways associated with brain tumors called meningiomas.

"Meningiomas are the most common intracranial (brain) tumors in adults," she said.

This area wasn't something Karno knew about starting the summer, but she came out of the summer sounding like someone who'd been studying the brain for years.

"I learned everything on the fly. I made a little dictionary to remember everything," she said. "It was really fun once I got over the initial nerves."

A number of companies help to fund the CURE program. Karno said her internship was funded through Merck, a leading pharmaceutical company.

Karno said this was an incredible experience. She got to hear a number of speakers from the cancer field and trips were made to different companies in the medical field.

One of the highlights of the summer for Karno was attending a scientific discussion on T-Cell Immunotherapy.

"T-Cells are part of the immune system and they fight cancer," Karno explained.

Karno is also working in a lab at Williams during the school year.

While some people in the medical field aspire to be hands-on with patients, Karno said her interests have always been in doing research.

"My skills are more suited to be in a lab, with the end goal of helping patients," she said.

Kate Johnson

Johnson, a 2015 NRHS graduate, is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Her major is in biochemistry and molecular biology. Her goal is to attend medical school.

"At the beginning this is the first year where my studies really start to get specialized and I'm taking analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology classes," Johnson said.

It is at NDSU where Johnson got into cancer studies. She was accepted to work in the cancer research lab under Dr. John Wilkinson. She said her work has focused mainly on pancreatic and prostate cancer research. She said they are studying the role of AIF (apoptosis inducing factor) and the formation of cancer at the molecular level.

In 2016, she volunteered at the Western Wisconsin Cancer Center in New Richmond.

"After volunteering at the Cancer Center in New Richmond, that brought what I do at a molecular level full circle for me and made me realize that our research really matters and makes a difference," Johnson said of her research.

Johnson said there's been a high amount of cancer in her family, so it's something of which she's long been aware. That caused her to begin taking more science classes in high school, where her interest in medicine grew.

"Ever since high school, I was super interested in oncology," saying she'd like to become a pediatric oncologist.

When the opportunity came up for a fellowship at Mayo Clinic for the summer, Johnson jumped at the chance. She worked in a research lab under Dr. Carli Sussman where she studied polycystic disease. Her 10-week commitment included getting to attend weekly seminar and getting to shadow doctors at Mayo.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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