Katie Miller ’15 had never heard of hairy cell leukemia before this summer.
But after several weeks working at Gundersen Medical Foundation’s Kabara Cancer Research Institute in La Crosse, Wis., Miller is not only familiar with the rare form of cancer, she is hoping her research will help to create a new therapeutic target for the disease.
Miller, a biology major from Rochester, Minn., is the second Saint Mary’s University Fellow at Gundersen, an academic collaboration brought about through 1958 alumnus Jon Kabara and his wife Betty, founders of the Kabara Cancer Research Institute. Since Jon’s death in 2011, Betty has continued the fight against the terrible disease.
It has been their goal that Saint Mary’s students participate in the important research happening at Gundersen and that Gundersen benefit from the assistance of talented Saint Mary’s students.
Miller said she had to look at her phone a couple of times just to believe she had been chosen for the competitive fellowship.
“I had to make sure I was reading correctly,” she said. “I just kind of signed up on a whim, but I knew they only pick one person each year. I was very excited. Working at the institute gives me the opportunity to work in a professional lab setting, and Gundersen has become well-known in the U.S. and is a growing and very well-respected health-care institution.”
Miller is continuing a project started in the early 2000s by Gundersen’s first cancer researcher, Dr. Carl Simon Shelley, that involves hairy cell leukemia (HCL), a rare, slow-growing cancer of the blood in which a person’s bone marrow makes too many B cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infection.
“Because of the over production of the B cells, other cells in your body don’t get produced as much, and it can affect your immunity,” Miller explains. “As a subset, it can affect your liver and kidneys. It’s a chronic disease, and often people get it later in life.”
“In the end, we want to show that CD38, a surface marker of the cell, is something over-expressed in hairy cell leukemia in order to create a new therapeutic target. Everything that Dr. Shelley has done so far has been with cell lines,” she said. “I am validating what he has done and doing it with tissue containing hairy cells.”
Miller looks up different cases from patients with HCL. Samples are then taken from the Gundersen BioBank, a collection of tens of thousands of cancer tissues taken from cancer patients.
“I started cutting the tissue and then placing it on slides and using an immunohistochemistry technique,” she said.
The first new skill Miller said she had to master was learning how to properly cut the tissue. This was especially challenging because bone marrow is the fresh tissue she is using and this is the hardest tissue to cut. Additionally, she had learned about the immunohistochemistry process in class, but had never actually done it before.
“And in general, I’m gaining more confidence and learning to be independent,” she said. “They tell you what you have to do for the week and it’s your job to figure out how to finish it on schedule.
As a future pathologist, Miller finds the skills she’s learning invaluable. A pathologist examines tissues, checks the accuracy of lab tests, and interprets the results in order to facilitate a patient’s diagnosis and treatment.
Her summer fellowship has solidified that she is on the right career path.
“I was able to shadow a pathologist for a day and talked with them, and my lab works with the pathologists at Gundersen very closely. It’s kind of easy to see a job or read about it but until you actually do it, you don’t really know if it’s totally for you. It’s all just really interesting to me.”
Miller said she would recommend the experience at the Kabara Cancer Research Institute to future students because it’s a great environment to work in, and the work is fulfilling, knowing you’re a part of breakthrough cancer research.
“Everyone knows someone with cancer; it touches everyone’s lives,” she said. “Our research could lead to something potentially life-changing in the future.”