A pair of students from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) have been selected to conduct research at two of the nation’s most prestigious cancer centers this summer.

Patrick Beck will work on immunotherapies for brain cancer at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, while Kasen Hutchings will pursue clinical practice with radiology-related cancer treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Both third-year students, Beck and Hutchings are carrying out their main research project in the lab of Zhi Sheng, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and in the Department of Internal Medicine at VTCSOM.

“I am so proud of these two students’ accomplishments,” Sheng said. “They have both done outstanding research in my lab. These are very competitive fellowships they have been awarded, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Beck is working in the Pediatric Oncology Student Training (POST) program as part of the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, one of the leading funders of pediatric cancer research in the United States and Canada. POST provides undergraduate, graduate, and medical students a summer research internship and pairing with a mentor who is conducting research in the field of pediatric oncology.

Working under renowned pediatric cancer researcher Alan Friedman, Beck will be assisting with research aimed at reprogramming the immune system to create a hostile environment that will attack cancer cells. Specifically, he will be testing if the immunotherapy model Friedman’s lab has developed is effective in knocking out brain cancer in mice.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to contribute to meaningful pediatric glioblastoma research,” Beck said, recounting a childhood baseball teammate who died of the disease. “If there’s a way I can make a difference, then that’s what I want to do.”

Back in Sheng’s lab, Beck’s research involves using computational analysis to identify different types of gene signaling pathways for glioblastoma in hopes of more effectively treating the disease. His project was derived from his own new way of thinking about the research he first set out to do.

“I really appreciated that Patrick went beyond his first project to come up with a novel topic of inquiry,” Sheng said. “Science is always driven by curiosity. What he is doing is a beautiful example of hypothesis-driven research.”

Beck hopes to pursue pediatric oncology after medical school.

Hutchings will be spending his summer in cancer imaging research under the mentorship of Pratip Bhattacharya, associate professor of diagnostic imaging at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, the Cancer Prevention Research Training Program at MD Anderson offers summer research opportunities to undergraduate, graduate, and health professions students who are interested in cancer prevention research.

“MD Anderson is one of the greatest cancer centers in the world,” Hutchings said. “So if there’s ever a place to study cancer, that’s it.”

A lot of Hutchings’ work will be using multimodal artificial intelligence to screen for high-grade serous ovarian cancer, predict clinical outcomes, and guide treatment. He hopes to pursue radiology with a cancer focus after medical school.

During the regular school year, Hutchings’ research in Sheng’s lab is devoted to finding better treatment options for resistant cancers like glioblastoma and melanoma through a new targeted therapy that tackles the most vulnerable part of cancer cells. Hutchings recently published a paper with Sheng and has presented his work at several conferences.

“Kasen is the first medical student in my laboratory who started his project before his very first research block and is perhaps one of the most talented medical students I have ever mentored,” Sheng said. “His research this summer will be instrumental to future therapeutic development for difficult-to-treat cancers.”

In addition to dedication to their own research interests, both Beck and Hutchings have mentored students from the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, who both won grand prizes at the Western Virginia Science Fair as well as the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair.

“It was such a great way to pay forward all the superb mentoring I’ve had along the way,” Beck said.

Share this story