by Sai-Suma K. Samudrala
This past summer – apart from enjoying the sun on a run or out on the tennis court with friends – I spent most of my time in a research lab and clinic, focusing on my growth as an MCW medical student.
Many medical students use the summer between their first and second years of study to pursue basic science, clinical or translational research. I was fortunate to receive a summer fellowship funded by the National Institutes of Health as part of MCW's Medical Student Summer Research Program (MSSRP), and had the opportunity to work in the lab of Michael Mitchell, MD, and Aoy Tomita-Mitchell, PhD, studying congenital heart disease.
At the Mitchell lab, we are able to take advantage of the work of Jennifer Strande, MD, PhD, GME '06, FEL '10, whose lab at MCW has optimized a procedure wherein a patient's cells in a urine culture can be turned into the cells' pluripotent stage – known as patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
These iPSCs have the ability to transform into any other cell type in the body, which has enabled me to grow them into cardiomyocytes – or heart cells.
It was fascinating for me to see these maturing heart cells beating on a dish, as heart cells are tightly bound to each other – and when one cell is excited, the action spreads to all other connected cells.
The overarching goal of my project in the Mitchell lab is to model "Ebstein's anomaly," a heart disease that affects the tricuspid valve, which separates the heart's two chambers on the right.
I seek to differentiate patient-specific iPSC lines into cardiomyocytes, and to document any characteristics that are different from an unaffected patient or from wild type lines. Specifically, this summer I attempted to direct wild type heart cells into atrial or ventricular cells corresponding to the two types of chambers of the heart. Through MCW's generous fellowship and the guidance of the people in the Mitchell lab, I presented my research at the 2017 Midwest Pediatric Cardiology Society Conference in September.
I also have been involved with the Saturday Clinic for the Uninsured (SCU) as its policy and finance chair. SCU is a collaborative program between MCW and Columbia St. Mary's Family Health Center in Milwaukee that is run by medical students and offers free medical care in the community. Each Saturday, trained medical students volunteer to see patients, perform the duties of a phlebotomist, dispense medications, and more – all under the supervision of volunteer physicians.
As one of 12 student-managers on the board of the SCU, I have learned about resources that uninsured patients seek, how clinic administration works and how to be involved with expanding the clinic's services. Recently I assisted with applying for the "Smile Program," one of two dental grants offered by the Wisconsin Dental Association Foundation to expand SCU's oral healthcare services. I am pleased to report that the grant was approved, and the Clinic now receives dental supplies such as toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste to distribute to our patients.
These experiences in the lab and the clinic are helping me to see future approaches to investigating disease and striving for patient-centered care.