COMP-NW medical students learning to be researchers as well as doctors

Medical students at COMP-Northwest in Lebanon do more than learn to be doctors, Dr. Glen Kisby, associate professor of pharmacology at COMP-Northwest,  told attendees at the Lebanon Chamber Forum Lunch Feb. 22.

They’re developing into the next generation of medical researchers, he said.

Kisby outlined research projects that students are working on at the college.

He explained the importance of training medical students in research development because, he said, a majority of leading physician scientists are getting old, and only a small percentage of incoming physicians are expressing interest in scientific research.

Quoting Melvin Blanchard, director of the Division of Medical Education of Internal Medicine, Kisby said, “They’re an essential national resource because of their collective impact on our understanding of diseases and helping to extend life span. Additionally, physician scientists have made the U.S. a world leader in biomedical research.”

In order to send out new physicians who can replace retiring physician scientists, the research faculty at COMP-Northwest aims to: teach current topics in both biomedical and clinical research; teach students how to frame a research project from conception to presentation; teach students how to critically evaluate scientific literature; and prepare students to be able to do research during their residency, fellowship and, he hopes, also during their clinical careers.

The research faculty includes Dr. Michelle Steinauer, who’s profiling a natural product that is lethal to parasites, and Kisby, who looks at the role of environmental factors in disorders that affect development of and damage to the nervous system. Partnering with the college are Drs. Elizabeth Guenther, Olivia Pipitone and Edward Goering, who provide clinical research experience.

Steinauer works with students, focusing on infectious disease research in Kenya and Costa Rica. In Kenya, when people swim and wash their clothes in Lake Victoria, they are contaminated by parasites that reside with little snails.

“What she’s looking at is determining the mechanisms of vector resistance to schistosome parasites by breaking the cycle of transmission,” Kisby said. “She’s also looking at the influence of parasitic infection on behavior and cognition.”

In Costa Rica, Steinauer is working in partnership with OSU veterinary and public health students to model the movement of antibiotic resistance genes across landscapes.

Kisby noted that while Steinauer is looking at infectious agents that affect the brain, he’s doing something similar in that he’s looking at environmental factors that influence the brain.

He explained two of the projects he’s working on with students: how the cycad plant may be influencing a neurodegenerative disease referred to as Parkinson Dementia Complex (PDC), and the role of environmental chemical factors on nervous system disorders such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.

“We think that chemicals disturb or permanently damage the DNA in a person’s brain. That DNA damage is persistent. If it happens before birth, it can lead to a neurodevelopmental disorder. If it happens after birth, it could lead to neurodegenerative disease.”

PDC, a disease found in the western Pacific that presents features of Lou Gehrig’s, Parkinson’s and an Alzheimer-like dementia, is suspected of originating from the cycad plant. In Japan, people use the plant as an oral tonic or steep; in Irian Jaya they apply it to open sores or wounds; and in Guam they use it as a poultice for open sores, or prepare it as food.

Following Nobel Prize-winning Shinya Yamanaka’s discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in 2006, Kisby and his students have been able to use human cells for their research. Basically, iPS cells are human cells that were reprogrammed into its embryonic state, and can then be re-made into any cell in the body, Kisby explained.

His research team uses the cells to develop nerves and human fetal brains, and they look at how toxins can affect the cells to produce features of neurodevelopmental or neurodegenerative diseases, he said.

The fundamental question he posed is, ‘If we treat them with these toxins that are suspected of triggering the disease, do they in fact produce features that we see normally in these individuals with the disease?’

Their other research project focuses on the timing of exposure to certain toxins which may be triggering epilepsy or schizophrenia. Evidence has already been studied on rats, and Kisby wants to use iPS cells to mimic the model in human cells.

In-utero rats that are exposed to particular toxins early in its fetal brain development are born with epilepsy, but those exposed closer to birth wind up with schizophrenia, he explained.

“The timing of exposure gives us indicators or predictors of risk during pregnancy for different environmental chemicals, that certain chemicals can lead specifically to structural changes,” he said.

His lab hopes to create human fetal brains for this experiment.

This fall, students of the Research Club will conduct their annual Research Symposium to present what they’ve learned in their research training.