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Medical student awarded 2022 AOA Kuckein Research Fellowship

Third-year medical student Juliana Kim, recipient of the Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship

Growing up, Juliana Kim observed her grandfather’s respect for his patients and staff – and the mound of thank-you cards and homemade gifts at his retirement reception reflected the impact of his work as an internist.

“I realized medicine allows an immediate, personal connection with patients that is so valuable. I’m thankful I can take part in it,” said Ms. Kim, now a third-year UTSW medical student and recent recipient of a 2022 Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship.

The fellowship provides $5,000 in support while Ms. Kim works with Jennifer Gill, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Dermatology, characterizing fatty acid metabolism alterations in human BRAF mutant melanomas to identify novel therapeutic vulnerabilities.

“This award encourages me to stay curious,” Ms. Kim said. “The clinical environment is demanding. This award reminds me that it’s possible to create space for science, and thinking about interesting questions is one way to prevent burnout. It’s a testament to all who’ve supported me along my medical journey, allowing me to pursue my interests.”

three doctors in white lab coats
Ms. Kim (center) shows her fellowship award letter to Jennifer Gill, M.D., Ph.D., and Kevin Klein, M.D.

During college at UT Austin, Ms. Kim worked in the lab of John Wallingford, Ph.D., studying developmental biology. When looking for a better way to study the characteristics of frog embryos, she started using statistical methods more commonly used for metabolism research.

“I realized that studying metabolism – metabolomics – was pretty awesome in that it gives you the most current information about the activities of cells in amazing detail,” she said.

Coming into medical school, Ms. Kim was curious whether skin samples could be studied with metabolomics.

“Skin cells turn over fast and are very active. They’re also accessible through a quick biopsy, which could make large sample collection easy,” she explained. “It was a long shot, but when I reached out to my adviser, she was able to connect me with Dr. Gill, who happened to be studying metabolism in melanoma.”           

As Ms. Kim studies how tumor cells­ in BRAF mutant melanoma – the most common genetic mutation found in melanoma – obtain the energy they need to grow quickly, metastasize, or become treatment-resistant, she is looking for vulnerabilities that can be targeted with drugs. While there have been great advances in melanoma treatment, only 34% of patients with unresectable or metastatic BRAF V600E/K melanomas survive after five years when treated with BRAF inhibitors, suggesting that treatment resistance remains problematic, she said.

“Last summer, our preliminary data suggested that these BRAF mutants obtain higher levels of specific types of fatty acids than tumors without the BRAF mutation. This finding was interesting because fatty acids are known to be intimately related to activities that generate quick energy in cancer cells. Many of these lipids are already targeted by existing drugs, so lipid metabolism is a promising target for melanoma therapeutics,” she said.

Now Ms. Kim and Dr. Gill, in collaboration with Ralph DeBerardinis, M.D., Ph.D., a Professor in the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT  Southwestern and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, are working to enlarge their patient data set and identify lipid species that they can target with drugs.

“If successful, these treatments could provide an option for patients with contraindications to existing therapies or refractory disease,” Ms. Kim said.

Nearly half of patients with metastatic melanoma become resistant to available treatments, Dr. Gill noted.

 “While many studies work with cell lines, one of the most exciting and important aspects of Juliana’s project is that she is using a large data set of more than 100 patient samples,” she said. “Mentoring Juliana on this project has been a true joy. Her potential is limitless, and she is most deserving of this award.”

The Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society is a national organization recognizing high achievement in medical scholarship, leadership, service, and research. The Councilor of the UT Southwestern Chapter of AOA is Kevin Klein, M.D., Professor of Anesthesiology & Pain Management and of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery.

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