Three VP&S Students Awarded HHMI Medical Research Fellowships

Two Vagelos P&S medical students–Julie J. Hwang and Angelina M. Seffens–have been awarded biomedical research fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). A third student, Christopher Jackson, received an HHMI fellowship to extend his research for a second year, one of only 14 students to receive extended fellowships this year.

The three join these other VP&S students who have received HHMI research fellowships in the past two years: Theodora Karagounis, MD'18, Cynthia Chen (Class of 2019), and Paula Rambarat (Class of 2019).

The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program aims to develop the next generation of physician-scientists by allowing select medical, dental, and veterinary students to immerse themselves full-time in biomedical research for a year. This year, 66 students were selected to participate; each fellow receives $43,000 in grant support.

“The school is extremely proud of its HHMI fellows,” says Elizabeth Shane, MD, associate dean for student research and professor of medicine at VP&S. “HHMI fellows gain invaluable experience in performing innovative, high impact research with highly regarded mentors. This research experience not only starts them on the path toward a career as a physician-scientist but, importantly, also advances medical knowledge.”

Columbia medical student Julie Hwang was awarded an HHMI Medical Research Fellowship

Julie J. Hwang will work with Thomas Yocum, MD, and Charles Emala, MD, in Columbia’s Department of Anesthesiology to investigate a new way to control allergic asthma, the most common type of asthma. Allergic asthma is triggered by airborne allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, or pollen and causes lung inflammation that can lead to serious breathing difficulties.

Hwang will work to understand how activating GABAA receptors in the lung leads to a reduction in inflammation. She also will test the potential of new GABAA activators that do not cross into the brain (where GABAA receptors are used in neurotransmission).

“We hope that our study will not only help us better understand the mechanism by which GABAA receptor modulates immune function but also develop a new therapeutic paradigm for the treatment of asthma and potentially other inflammatory diseases,” Hwang says.

Columbia medical student Angelina Seffens was awarded an HHMI Medical Research Fellowship

During her research year, Angelina Seffens will work on a collaborative project with Larisa Geskin, MD, in Columbia's Department of Dermatology, and Sergei Koralov, PhD, at NYU to create a mouse model of cutaneous t-cell lymphoma (CTCL), a T-cell malignancy that homes to the skin. No curative therapies are available for CTCL, due in part to a lack of molecular targets. The new small animal model may be used to develop a deeper understanding of disease pathogenesis, to discover disease markers for easier diagnosis, and to identify targets for therapies.

“We know that two genes are consistently overexpressed in CTCL—STAT3 and TOX—and we are working to create a mouse model that does the same. Our collaborators at NYU have already created a mouse that overexpresses STAT3 and develops a condition that resembles a less severe form of CTCL. We hypothesize that a mouse model that overexpresses both genes will develop a condition that resembles the more severe form of CTCL,” says Seffens.

Christopher B. Jackson will continue the research he started during his first HHMI fellowship with Ranjit Bindra, MD, at Yale.

Columbia medical student Christopher Jackson was awarded an HHMI Medical Research Fellowship in 2018

For the past year, Jackson has been studying glioblastoma, the most common form of primary brain cancer in adults, and ways to make current chemotherapy for glioblastoma more effective.

Most glioblastoma patients are treated with the chemotherapy agent temozolomide, and Jackson has found that inhibitors of a specific DNA repair pathway increase the sensitivity to temozolomide by about 1,000-fold in in vitro models of glioblastoma.

During his second year in the Bindra lab, Jackson will determine if the inhibitors also increase sensitivity to temozolomide in an in vivo model of glioblastoma. “It is my hope that if our results are promising, they will form the basis for clinical trials,” Jackson says.

“The first year helped tremendously to solidify my goal of pursuing a career as a physician-scientist,” Jackson says, “and I think this second year will provide more valuable experiences for this career path.”