Q&A with Kathryn Champ: On Researching the Cancer She Survived as a Child

By Rachel McCoy
When she was just six months old, Johns Hopkins University student Kathryn Champ was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma, and had to have one of her eyes surgically removed. While her cancer is now gone, Champ has dedicated the past five summers of her life to researching this disease for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and her hard work has not gone unnoticed. This past February, Champ was selected as a top three finalist in the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening poster competition in D.C. for her research on retinoblastoma. I sat down to speak with her about her research and the inspiration behind it, as well as her future career plans.

So, Kat, you just won a poster session.

I did, I did. So the last five summers I’ve been doing research in a lab in New York at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One of the people I work with in the lab is a member of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, and he’s always been very supportive of my love of science and wanting to go into research and wanting to go into the field of medicine. So, this summer he told me, ‘You should submit an abstract and poster design for this poster competition that this group that I’m a member of is holding this year in D.C. because it’s so close to you and you know you have a publication out already, so I think you should totally like submit for it.’

So, um, I took his advice and I wrote up an abstract based on the research I had done for this paper I had published in 2013, and I submitted that. I made a poster design, and I also submitted that. And I got news in January that I had been chosen as a finalist for the competition. So, I got everything together, I got a poster of my design printed out and I went on the day in February to the conference, which was held in D.C. in a convention center, and I set up and I had practiced a little bit.

I went in and I presented on the work I love to do and I guess they saw that and they liked it, and I was chosen as a top three finalist.

You know, it’s research that I’m very passionate about so I basically knew what I was going to say and I was pretty confident in answering questions. And it was really — it was amazing. Like people, all kinds of, you know, smart people in the industry would come up to me and ask me about my project and it was really nice, especially because I was probably the youngest person there. Only five people were chosen as finalists, and I was the only undergraduate who was chosen. It was scary going into this big conference with all these science-y people who all know much, much more than I do, and doing this presentation, but, you know, I went in and I presented on the work I love to do and I guess they saw that and they liked it, and I was chosen as a top three finalist. So yeah, I was chosen as a winner, so that was really exciting.

So, what was your research on?

So, the research I did was related to a disease called retinoblastoma, which is a rare form of children’s eye cancer, which I was actually effected by. So, the research was trying to repurpose Food and Drug Administration approved drugs. So, basically, take a library of known drugs like heart medications, antibacterials, just kind of a wide variety [approximately 7,000 compounds], and testing them in combination with a nutraceutical, which is a supplement, like, a widely consumed supplement called Resveratrol, which is found in red wine. So we tested Resveratrol along with all of these FDA approved drugs in a library to see if any of the combinations, like, combining the two drugs, would be useful for treating cancer. So, instead of using, like, a really toxic chemotherapy drug, try combinations of, you know, less toxic drugs and see if that could also work.

Did any of them work?

So, we found that none of them, none of the combinations, were really potent enough to work in the human body. But, we did end up finding that there are some combinations that, one specific group of drugs when combined with Resveratrol, their effects are not boosted…but they are actually antagonized. So, basically, this group of drugs — called microtubule inhibitors, which is a common class of chemotherapy drugs — when combined with Resveratrol, their action is stopped. Which is really interesting because often times patients take supplements in order to improve their condition and also often times they don’t respond properly to their treatment: They don’t respond as well as the doctors might have expected. Which, now, through this study, we think could be explained by the supplement antagonizing their cancer treatment. Which is really interesting.[Oftn don’t respond as well as the doctors might have expected. Which, now, through this study, we think could be explained by the supplement antagonizing their cancer treatment. Which is really interesting.

Yeah. You go in thinking that you’re going to find one thing, but you find something completely different, but something that’s really, really useful.

So, not really what you were looking for, but you still found something pretty important.

Exactly. We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we found something else that was pretty interesting. And, uh, kind of groundbreaking.

I guess this kind of happens a lot in science, yeah?

Yeah. You go in thinking that you’re going to find one thing, but you find something completely different, but something that’s really, really useful.

You said you had been affected by this form of cancer as a child: could you talk a little more about that?

Yeah, sure. So, I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma when I was 6-months-old. Um, it’s actually a funny story of how they went about diagnosing it. My mom has always been a really avid photographer…So, you know the red eye effect? You take a picture and it looks like both of the eyes, they get a red glow. My mom noticed that whenever she took pictures of me, one of my eyes got the red eye effect, and one of them, instead of being red, would shine, like, white. And she thought that was really strange, so she took me to the pediatrician and had them check my eyes. Turns out there was a tumor growing in my eye and that was causing the weird effect.

And, so, they got referred, my mom and dad got referred, to [Dr. David Abramson] at Sloane Kettering in New York, and he found out that I had this cancer in one of my eyes. You can either get it unilateral, which is in one eye, or bilateral, which is in both. And lucky me, I ended up with it in only one eye, so that was good. And, you know, back in the ’90s, medicine wasn’t as it obviously is now, so the best option for me was to just have my eye removed instead of going through chemotherapy and radiation. So, that’s what happened. They ended up taking out my eye, the one that had the cancer in it, and I’ve been cancer free ever since, which is excellent. And, you know, now they’ve come up with more advanced treatments that can salvage the eye, but no hard feelings, that’s ok. It got rid of my cancer; I don’t have to worry about it ever again. And it gave me a really strong drive to pursue medicine. So, while it was something not so great that happened to me, it also made me who I am, so I’m very happy.

So, this is what kind of inspired your drive to go into medicine.

It has, it absolutely has. And especially this doctor who treated me, Dr. Abramson, my parents kept in contact with him since the procedure. They’ve not only donated to him, but they’ve kept him updated with how I’m doing every year — the first year or so after I had checkups and stuff. But since then, we’ve moved to California, we moved across the country, so we weren’t nearby. But they kept in contact with him all these years because of what he did for our family. And then once I was old enough, once I got an email account and stuff, I started keeping in contact with him. And he’s just always been so inspiring to me, and he was actually the one who emailed me five years ago when I first — he emailed me in the winter of my sophomore year of high school and he was like, ‘Oh, I have this colleague who is looking for, you know, someone to work in his lab. Do you have a resume? You should make one and send it to him, I’m sure he’d let you work for him for the summer.’ So I made a resume. I was like, I had never made a resume, I was a high schooler, I didn’t have anything to put on a resume. But I did it anyway, I did a phone interview because he was in New York and I was in California, and I ended up getting this volunteering job. He really enjoyed working with me, so he offered[to have] me come back. I ended up working there for five summers in a row. Yeah, it’s quite something to be effected by this disease and stay in contact with the doctor that helped you…It basically started my career.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a doctor?

Probably after that [first] summer. I was pretty sure, like, pretty early on in high school that I wanted to go into medicine: I’d say sophomore year of high school. But I was sure after that summer and after being exposed to, you know, this very vigorous cancer research, that it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to help people who were in the same situation as mine.

Now are you planning on doing the M.D./Ph.D. route? Are you going to continue with research when you graduate from undergrad?

I’m thinking that I want to. I’m planning on taking the MCAT this summer, so I’m quite committed to doing an M.D. program. But I’m kind of playing around with different ideas [such as an] M.D./Ph.D. because I really do love research. And then my dad, actually over [spring] break, brought up this idea that I should consider an M.D./M.B.A. because if I want to go into drug research for a pharmaceutical company, they’re not only looking for someone that knows the science but knows how to market the science.

Also, if you ever want to go into private practice, knowing how to run a business might be helpful.

Yeah, exactly. So that’s an option I had never really considered, but I’m highly considering now.

Now this is the main research you’ve done during the summer. Have you done any during the school year?

Yeah, so during the school year, while I was still back in California in high school, I worked in a cancer research lab at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. I actually got to work with retinoblastoma also, which was really cool. Being able to do research with the cancer that affected me is very amazing — you know, to be able to help people who are in the same situation as me. And then once I got to Hopkins, I got a position — I’ve worked in two labs since being here. My first was in a cancer research lab, but it was working more with other sorts of cancer, and not so much with drugs, but more with metabolisms and getting a different view of cancer. And I decided that I wanted to sample different diseases, so I strayed a bit away from cancer, and I’ve been working in a parasite research lab since the fall. So, going up on almost a full school year now. But yeah, so I’m doing anti-parasitic drug research. So, trying to treat sleeping sickness and malaria with experimental drugs, and we’re also trying to develop a system of how we can model when you put a drug into the body — how’s it’s eliminated. We’re trying to figure out, or we’re trying to develop, that system with tubing and stuff that you can simulate it instead of having to do it in a live host.

So, you’d say you’re definitely interested in drug research.

Yes, I would love to work for a pharmaceutical company if I could. That would be amazing.

Now you said that you’re taking the MCAT this summer, which would mean that you’re not going to med school straight after undergrad.

Yes, I’m going to be taking a gap year. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do yet. I have a couple ideas. I could work in New York where I’ve been working the last couple summers, I could work in Los Angeles back at home, I could apply to a drug company somewhere in the country or around the world, and I also have kind of a job opportunity in South Korea, so that also might be a thing. The guy I’ve been working for all these summers in New York, the lab director Dr. Hakim Djaballah, actually just ended up leaving in November. He took over as the CEO of Institute Pasteur Korea. Which is a biotech, bioresearch company. The main company is in Paris, but there is a satellite one in Korea. So, he offered for me to do research with him there. So I could work there, but I don’t know if I really want to go to Korea for a whole year, you know. I’ll give it a try for the summer. He offered me a summer research job. I’ll give it a try, see if I like it. I’m kind of throwing around different ideas for gap year work.

Now long term, ideally 10 years down the road, what’s the ideal goal?

Well, the ideal goal is hopefully to finish all my education in the next —well depending on what I decide to do — hopefully I’ll finish in the next five to six years. If I do just an M.D. it will be four; if I do an M.D./M.BA. it will be five to five-and-a-half. So I guess just finishing up my training. Got to get through med school, residency, internship. Medicine’s a tough life, so much training. I’m not going to be a full, practicing doctor for another 10 years. So that’s where I hope to be.

Has there ever been a time when you’ve wanted to give up on the medicine idea?

I’ve always been very passionate about it. Every college student goes through the, ‘Why am I majoring in this, why am I doing this?’ I have so much work and it’s only going to get worse from here. But I’ve always been really passionate about helping people and so interested in science, I don’t think I could do anything else.