James Byrne: Scott Neil Schwirck Fellowship Award Winner

MD/PhD Spotlight: James Byrne


On January 20, 2011, the John B. Graham Medical Student Research Society held its 43rd annual Medical Student Research Day. The day kicked off with the Landes-Merrimon lecture by Nancy Andrews, Dean and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs & Professor of Pediatrics & Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke University. Dr. Andrews spoke on “Forging an Understanding of Iron Disorders.” Following the lecture, students presented original research in basic and clinical sciences as well as public health, through poster and oral presentations. The presented research had been conducted in medical centers, universities, and field sites all across the world, during summers and years before and during medical school enrollment, and was funded by a variety of research fellowships as well as masters and PhD programs. Teams of faculty judges selected the best presenters from each category for the Harold C. Pillsbury Awards, made possible by a generous gift from Dr. Pillsbury, Chair of the UNC Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery and faculty sponsor for the Society. These awards were presented at a reception at the Carolina Club, where all first-time presenters were inducted into the JBG Medical Student Research Society. Also presented were the Michiko Kuno Research Award and the Scott Neil Schwirck Fellowship, established to honor student researchers who best represent the qualities embodied by their namesakes.

I recently caught up with James Byrne, one of the poster presenters and new inductees who was also awarded the Scott Neil Schwirck Fellowship to continue his research in methods of chemotherapeutic drug delivery. James is an MD/PhD candidate currently finishing his MS1 year, who I thought could provide an insider’s look into medical student research at Carolina.

Michael: Thanks for meeting with me, James. Tell us a little bit about the research you presented.

James: I helped design and test a device for delivery of a chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Basically, you implant a device where you want the drug to go, and use an electric field to drive the drug into the tumor. For proof-of-principle studies, we tested the device on non-tumor-bearing dogs by implanting the device through a laparotomy procedure. Ideally you would want the human version to be delivered by a much less invasive method, but this was just a proof of concept—that the method could work and deliver the drug locally to normal pancreatic tissue. Obviously cancer tissue would be different, and the lab is currently testing the device on tumor-bearing animals.

Michael: Fascinating. How did you first discover this topic?

James: Well, I have a background in biomedical engineering, and I talked to a number of people in the field who recommended my mentor, Dr. Joe DeSimone, as someone who it would really be a great opportunity to work with. Dr. DeSimone turned me on to this problem in pancreatic cancer, which has one of the highest mortality rates per incidence among cancers. This is in part due to late discovery of the tumor, but also because of ineffective drug delivery. That is, if you give chemotherapy intravenously, hardly any gets to the actual tumor. So Dr. Simone had this idea of an iontophoretic delivery of drug to the tumor.

Michael: What was your role in the project?

James: It’s kind of hard to explain…I was kind of like the glue that held the team together, involved in all aspects of the study. I helped design the device for the specific animal models we used and a medical device development company fabricated it for us. Then we took the device to the animal research facility in RTP, performed the studies, and conducted HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) analyses for the results.

Michael: So you did some laparotomies with this—I bet that was interesting experience.

James: Definitely. I’ve put devices in all sorts of animals—goats, sheep, pigs, dogs. And ruminants, they have massive stomachs, and I have my whole arms wrapped around these huge stomachs digging for this tiny little pancreas, which is basically just two long, thin slivers. Contrast that to a few months later when I’m doing anatomy in medical school working on human cadavers—it’s really different and really interesting.

Michael: So do you have a manuscript?

James: We do have a manuscript pending. I was able to shrink the device from about 3.5 cm to a more manageable size for small animals, like mice, and we’re waiting on the data in those animals before we publish it.

Michael: So what questions do you propose to investigate for the Schwirck fellowship?

James: Well, the previous research has used gemcitabine, since that’s the standard of care for pancreatic cancer, but we’d like to scale it out to other cancers, so I’m going to do some in vitro studies to try to expand the method of iontophoretic delivery to other chemotherapies, starting with cisplatin.

Michael: And when will that take place?

James: This summer.

Michael: So what were your thoughts on Medical Student Research Day?

James: I was extremely impressed. I think they did a really great job of organizing it. I was even a little intimidated—I’ve been to a number of conferences before where you generally have one or two people come by your poster that have some experience in your field, and ask a couple of questions. But this kind of stretched me, to have to present to two sets of judges from all different disciplines. I didn’t get to go to many of the presentations from the other students, which I kind of regret, since I stayed by my poster most of the time. But the banquet they had afterwards was gorgeous—just overall a very impressive day.

Michael: How does presenting your work in that type of setting benefit a medical student researcher?

James: It offers experience. Medical students often don’t have an opportunity to present their work. You get practice presenting, and maybe it gets more students interested in various fields of research. I mean, other people in my position may disagree with me, since more competition means more difficulty with applying for grants, etc., but I’m of the opinion that the more minds, particularly from different fields, we have working on difficult problems, the faster we will get to solutions. I think a day like this one does a lot to stimulate that type of interest and awareness.

Michael: So you’ve already explained that you’ve always been passionate about research, and are obviously on a research track as an MD/PhD candidate. Do you have any thoughts yet on how you see research being integrated into your future career as a physician?

James: Well, I’m not quite sure yet what specialty I will go into, but I’ve thought a lot about radiology or radiation oncology. Whatever it ends up being, I see myself splitting time about 80-20 between research and clinical activities.

Michael: Well James, it sounds like you have a promising career ahead of you, which has already got off to a great start. Best of luck with the rest of first year and the continuation of your research this summer, and thanks for talking with me.

James: Thank you, it was my pleasure.