Leyden student helps develop hepatitis therapy
Justin Thomas, a West Leyden High School student, works in the lab getting DNA samples at Loyola Medical Center Aug. 7 in Maywood. Thomas was chosen to take part in summer research program put on by American Cancer Society. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:57AM
Northlake — Some students goof around in the summer. Justin Thomas spent his summer growing liver cancer cells.
Thomas, now a senior at West Leyden High School, was accepted to the Summer Research Program organized by the Illinois division of the American Cancer Society. Almost 300 students around Illinois applied to take part in this year’s program, which had only 35 slots.
For eight weeks, Thomas worked in a laboratory at Loyola University in Maywood. He worked to help develop therapies for hepatitis C virus infections and hepatitis C virus related malignancies, said Michael Nishimura of Loyola University Medical Center, Thomas’s mentor.
Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus that can lead to liver failure and liver cancer. Like the AIDS virus, it mutates rapidly, making it difficult or impossible for an infected person’s immune system to recognize and fight the virus.
“What we’re interested in is how the virus can evade the host immune system,” Nishimura said. “It’s been extremely difficult to make a vaccine against this virus, to prevent or treat it.”
Thomas’s job was to develop a cell line that other researchers could use to figure out how the virus evades the immune system.
“It sounded really fun to participate in,” Thomas said.
Thomas describes himself as a math and science kind of guy, but working in a laboratory was a bit different for him.
“My first impression was kind of like, wow, these scientists are working on their own,” Thomas said. “In school you have teachers telling you what to do and all these guidelines. In the lab, it was totally unstructured in time constraints and people telling me what to do.”
For an untrained observer, his work might look a little dull.
“There’s a lot of looking at computer screens,” Thomas said. “At other times it looked like being in a space ship. Some of the equipment is really bizarre.”
For example, there was a flow cytometer, a device Thomas used for detecting cell receptors.
“We taught him how to do cell cultures,” Nishimura said. “He has learned how to express genes. He does recombinant gene technology — using methods that allow you to move genes around. It’s likely his work will help us to conduct clinical trials in patients.”
Thomas’s work will also end up in at least one academic paper, to be published in a scientific journal.
There were challenges. Thomas had to learn new processes and new equipment. Like his adult co-workers, he was held responsible for completing work on time. And then there was the most difficult part for a student normally on summer vacation.
“Having to wake up at extremely early times was extremely challenging,” Thomas said.