High School Senior Motivates KGI Lab to Tackle Rare Disease
Being only in high school didn't stop Maggie King last summer from working in one of KGI's advanced research labs—and in the process influencing researchers to work on a rare disease that has impacted her family.
The opportunity proved to be a win-win for everyone as a result of Maggie coming to KGI. Her time spent in the Center for Biomarker Research was fruitful for her education and personal growth, while researchers got to know Maggie and the difficulties behind a rare medical condition that has stricken those closest to her, as well as 15,000 other people in the United States.
For much of her 17 years, Maggie has watched her mother, Helen King, 44, struggle with Behcet's Disease, an autoimmune disorder that has no cure. Behçet's causes damage to blood vessels throughout the body, inflicting patients with swollen veins that can lead to chronic pain, sores and fatigue as well as vision problems; the disease also can result in brain lesions and strokes.
Motivated by her mother's ordeal, Maggie sought to begin learning about laboratory research and approached KGI faculty last May to see if she could get a summer internship that ordinarily is reserved for college students.
Professor James Osborne, PhD, decided to take a chance on Maggie after meeting her. What she lacked in terms of college science and experience, Maggie made up for in passion and commitment, which sold Osborne on taking her into his Center for Biomarker Research for three months.
At first, the Robert E. Finnigan Professor of Applied Life Sciences figured the Arcadia High School senior would merely shadow the older researchers in the lab. But then Osborne learned about Maggie's family history with Behcet's, a disease he had not worked on. He was moved by her drive to become a medical researcher and to devote herself to helping rare disease patients. So he decided to make Behcet's research a priority of his lab, which delighted his young assistant.
"When I told her, 'let's work on Behcet's,' she lit up like a Christmas tree," said Osborne.
At the same time he made it clear to Maggie that she would have her work cut out.
"I told her, since we're not already working on this, you're going to have to start at the ground floor," he said, explaining she would have to research the existing medical literature, study up on symptoms, treatments and any available diagnostic tests.
Maggie took to the tasks and surprised Osborne with her accomplishments. In addition to crafting a mind map on the known's and unknowns of the disease, she built a database of published research and became a liaison between the American Behcet's Disease Association (ABDA) and KGI to arrange for patients' blood samples to be sent to the biomarker lab for study purposes.
"The amazing thing is in just 10 weeks, we had Behcet's samples in our lab to begin testing," said Osborne, who said the quick start-up was all due to Maggie's efforts.
Maggie said she was "overwhelmed by what had taken place" by the end of the summer. "The most amazing thing about it was that I was able to do it ... and I never imagined before that I could do so much," she said.
The Center for Biomarker Research is now examining the blood serum samples of about 20 patients, with more continuing to come in from those who have heard about the project through the ABDA's website. Osborne's goal is to locate the disease's biomarkers, which would allow for the development of a blood test to accurately diagnose the disorder. Currently, doctors have only symptoms to go on when visited by Behcet's sufferers, and since some of those symptoms are shared by other diseases, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, it can lead to inaccurate diagnoses and no shortage of frustration for people like Helen.
Locating the biomarkers also could mean finding the "trigger" which sets Behcet's off in people. A possible heredity condition, its symptoms tend to first appear during puberty. But then it tends to go dormant until something in an adult's body causes a flare up that can last indefinitely. Knowing the trigger would aid patients and medical science in determining therapies for better controlling the disease. It might even be possible to develop a drug that blocks the onset of symptoms, Osborne says.
Such developments would be welcome news for Maggie's mom who has endured Behcet's since she was in her teens. It would also mean a brighter tomorrow for Maggie and her sibling, both of whom have exhibited early symptoms of the disease.
"I know finding a biomarker for this disease is going to be a huge deal in the medical world," Maggie said. "That's what I want to do—I want to help find this biomarker and make a difference."
In addition to working in the biomarker lab, Maggie has been very active in community service, coaching for the Special Olympics, raising money for the American Cancer Society and working on a children's science book. Her efforts have been acknowledged nationally with both the Presidential Volunteer Service Award and the Congressional Award, which recognizes initiative, achievement and service in young people.
After high school Maggie intends to go to college, then medical school, so she can devote her career to research that will aid those suffering from Behcet's Disease and other rare diseases that have no available cure.
By Noel Brinkerhoff