Microscopic photo of cancer cells

Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) is the most aggressive known cancer of the central nervous system in both children and adults, with a median patient survival of only 12 months post-diagnosis. Jovanna Tracz, a rising second-year medical student pursuing neurosurgery, is trying to change that.

Ms. Tracz is one of nine medical students selected to receive the American Brain Tumor Association Jack & Fay Netchin Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship, a grant with a competitive and rigorous review process, to conduct research under the mentorship of neuroscientist and epilepsy researcher Alberto Musto, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Pathology and Anatomy.

“One component of the first-year medical student anatomy course is a neuroanatomy lab, where students have access to neuroscience researchers as we navigate the brain," says Ms. Tracz. She and Dr. Musto discussed the "chaotic connections" within the brain that are a hallmark of epilepsy and GBM. Out of those discussion emerged the research project, "Neuro-inflammatory Targets in Glioblastoma Multiforme Synapses."

“The neuron-glioma synapses not only induce neuro-hyper-excitability in adjacent brain areas (causing symptoms such as epileptic seizures), but also allow glioma tumor cells to further integrate into functional areas of the brain and proliferate," Ms. Tracz says. Her study will examine how those first few cancer cells start "reaching out" to surrounding neurons.

Student at microscope

Ms. Tracz sees medical student research not only as a way to generate new ideas but also as a process of self-development.

“Conducting research changes the way you think: you look at course material through a new lens; you keep up with current literature and develop your own ideas, which also helps to ensure that your future patients will receive the best treatment option available for their unique situation,” she says.

As a non-traditional medical student with a prior career in hotel finance before transitioning to medicine, Ms. Tracz hopes to bridge her business experience and medicine while conducting neurosurgical research and eventually becoming an academic neurosurgeon.

“We need physician-scientists that can think critically to identify patient needs and bring them from the bench to the bedside," she says. "Working on this project with Dr. Musto - learning from every research technique and every experiment, both the successful ones and any that may fail - has allowed me to continue developing into this physician-scientist.”

The research will continue into the academic year.

“I am hopeful that these findings will help to identify molecular markers that can be both visualized during neurosurgery and targeted with medical treatment,” she says.