Jared Browning knew he wanted to be a doctor the moment he witnessed a group of injured school children enter the Nepalese hospital where he was volunteering last June, just months after a major earthquake devastated the South Asian country. Limited in his skills, he wished desperately he could do more to help.
But after completing an honours thesis this year on how chemotherapy affects heart health, the 22-year-old biology major is torn between a future in medicine or research as the best way to fulfill his passion for helping others.
“A lot of people in science, we come in and we just have this mindset that’s ‘pre-med,’ and ‘I want to be a doctor,'” says Browning, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a concentration in Health Science at June Convocation.
“There’s a lot of research that’s being done in the health field,” he says, “and that’s another way to make a difference for people.”
In his lab at Carleton’s Nesbitt Biology Building, for example, Browning and a handful of other undergraduate and graduate students are studying cancer therapies under the supervision of Prof. Bruce McKay and visiting scientist Pasan Fernando.
Browning’s one-year research project focused on the possible side-effects of three chemotherapeutic drugs—doxorubicin, paclitaxel and cisplatin—on the heart.
“With a typical chemo treatment, people get really sick, they start to lose their hair, they get really drowsy, fatigued.”
Although chemotherapy drugs might cure a patient of cancerous tumours in the short term, they can wreak havoc on the body’s internal organs. More and more research is being dedicated to studying heart damage in particular, Browning says.
“Patients who are treated are cured from cancer and then, say, anywhere from one to 20 years later, they can develop cardiac problems that can be severe enough that they are lethal.”
To test the concept, Browning administered a one-time, 24-hour dose of the drugs to healthy cardiac cells, looking for structural damage and changes to protein levels. Due to the one-year time constraint of his honours thesis, he condensed the dosages that would usually be taken over a year.
Each drug proved to kill off cells, “which is typically what’s seen,” Browning says.
But when he increased the dosage of cisplaten, it also caused “cross-linking” of proteins, which Browning says can prevent cells from functioning properly and cannot be detected in a heart scan.
“If you have cell death, you’re going to notice that (on a scan). It would be like me taking a hammer to your water bottle,” he says. “If the proteins are cross-linked . . . you’re not going to notice.”
Browning said ample research is still needed to find out whether the results of his study could have long-term consequences, or whether the findings were due to the high dosage of drugs he used.
“Moving forward, we would need to take the same cells and dose them multiple times and see if it could have a cumulative effect,” Browning says.
While he won’t have a chance to do it himself, he’s excited to move on to a study on leukemia this fall as a master’s student in the same lab.
“It sounds really corny, but I always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” he laughs, adding that he hasn’t given up on pursuing medical school after his master’s degree.
“I’m really passionate about helping people and finding cures for things that are harmful.”