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Third medical student earns St. Baldrick’s fellowship to study cancer at the VTC Research Institute

July 17, 2017

Medical students in lab
Medical student researchers in the lab of Zhi Sheng have been awarded research fellowships by the St. Baldrick's Foundation for an unprecedented three summers in a row. Left to right: Pratik Kanabur, Sheng, Lamvy Le, and Vivek Singh.

Third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Lamvy Le is passionate about cancer research, and her mentor, Zhi Sheng, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, is passionate about mentoring young scientists.

With a summer research fellowship from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Le is currently developing therapies that could potentially treat pediatric brain cancer while causing fewer harmful side effects than conventional therapies.

Le is the third medical student from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in as many years to receive a St. Baldrick’s grant. All three recipients have worked in Sheng’s lab in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute — an unprecedented accomplishment for both Sheng and his students.

“Dr. Sheng is an incredible mentor,” Le said. “I think the success of his students speaks to that. He’s supportive, always available, and offers great guidance.”

Sheng, however, gives the credit to the students.

“Three winners in a row is not because of me; it’s because of them,” Sheng said. “They are all brilliant students and researchers.”

The additional two St. Baldrick fellows were Pratik Kanabur and Vivek Singh, both in the Class of 2018.

Le is one of only 21 medical students across the nation to receive grants from St. Baldrick’s this summer. The not-for-profit organization has been raising money to help find cures for children with cancer for 18 years. Its foundation awarded $105,000 in research fellowships this summer.

Sheng leads a comprehensive research program studying the mechanisms of development of glioblastomas, a very aggressive brain cancer, and identifying new therapeutic strategies.

Le’s research focuses on potential treatments based on inhibiting a gene that occurs in high levels in glioblastomas. While other studies have focused on inhibiting a faulty cell-signaling pathway involving PI3K enzymes, which is believed to play a role in the cancer’s growth, Le’s research isolates and targets the suspect gene, a procedure not expected to be toxic to normal cells.

The therapy she is studying in her research is already being administered to patients with other types of cancer.

“Lamvy is doing some very sophisticated experiments,” Sheng said. “And so far, her preliminary results look promising. The beauty of this drug is that it is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so we hope it will be much easier for us to initiate clinical trials.”

Working in Sheng’s lab was a natural fit for Le, who was already an experienced researcher before she entered medical school, having worked in a research lab three years during college at the University of Virginia and another year as a clinical research coordinator at a private hematology/oncology practice.

“There is an intimate relationship that exists between patient care and research,” Le said. “I appreciate how research helps to provide access to groundbreaking cancer treatments for patients with few alternatives.”

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s strong commitment to research was an attractive feature when it came time to select a medical school.

“It was absolutely the reason I chose to come here,” Le said.

Students at the school are expected to produce a research project of publication quality in a peer-reviewed scientific or medical journal. It’s part of the school’s mission to graduate scientist physicians with clinical skills as well as real-world experience, knowledge, and appreciation for the role of research in the development and delivery of health care.

“VTC is a brilliant partnership,” Sheng said. “I have always worked in a medical university, but I have never seen this kind of mechanism that encourages research among medical students. It’s a unique model, and I’m very impressed.”

Sheng expects the medical students in his lab to work independently and to be self-directed. They are productive researchers in addition to taking classes and doing clinical work.

“My philosophy for mentoring busy medical students has been to treat them like they were Ph.D. students,” Sheng said. “I am always surprised at their ability to understand the research and to organize themselves and their demanding schedules. I am very impressed.”

Many of the medical students carry out their required research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, where 25 research teams study the biological mechanisms of human health and disease in neuroscience, cardiovascular science, cancer, and immunology.

“I encourage them to complete their research as medical students and find a way in the future, if they can, to continue doing research,” Sheng said. “Doctors know the critical needs in the clinic, and they can design more sophisticated studies that can help patients.”

For Le, time spent in the lab is something she looks forward to.

“Research will always be part of me,” Le said. “It’s something I want to continue as a practicing physician.”

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