MACON – Rising Mercer University sophomore Matthew Halbert was recently presented a $5,000 Undergraduate Summer Student Research Award in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma (DIPG) from Joshua’s Wish, a local nonprofit organization.
Joshua’s Wish was formed in 2010 after Trent and Labrina Solomon’s son, Joshua, passed away at the age of 5 from DIPG, an inoperable brain tumor. The organization is dedicated to funding national medical research efforts to find a cure for pediatric brain tumors, to support families of children in Georgia who have cancer and are undergoing treatment and to raise awareness of childhood cancer.
Halbert, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Fayetteville, will spend the summer researching current treatments of DIPG with pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Cynthia Hawkins at Toronto’s world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids).
“With this award, Joshua’s Wish is aiming to raise awareness of this childhood cancer with future generations of cancer researchers,” said Dr. Lionel Chow, pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and chair of the Joshua’s Wish Medical Advisory Board. “By offering the award to students contemplating a career in medical research, who are faced with many different opportunities, we hope to spark the interest of a few to make DIPG research a lifelong focus. Perhaps one day, a young researcher supported by Joshua’s Wish will make a key discovery, bringing patients and families one step closer to the cure.”
The Undergraduate Summer Student Award in DIPG is open to students from institutions across the U.S. and Canada. This is the fifth year Joshua’s Wish has presented the award, and Halbert is the ninth overall recipient and the second from Mercer. Past winners have come from institutions such as Duke University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Dr. Kevin Bucholtz, associate professor and director of undergraduate research at Mercer and a member of the Joshua’s Wish Medical Advisory Board, recommended Halbert based on his academic credentials and research experience. Halbert began working in Dr. Bucholtz’s lab as a freshman and has been participating in a collaborative effort along with Dr. Jim Thomas of Mercer’s School of Medicine to develop a model for inhibitor selectivity in 3-beta-HSD1, a critical enzyme in the steroid biosynthesis of androstenedione in human placenta.
“The opportunity provided by Joshua’s Wish to work with Dr. Hawkins at SickKids in Toronto will put Matt in one of the premier labs worldwide working on DIPG,” said Dr. Bucholtz. “Beyond the skills and techniques he will be exposed to, being in this type of high-level translation research will be instrumental as he continues to solidify his future plans.”
“The research facility here at SickKids is phenomenal, and the staff members here are absolutely fantastic,” said Halbert, who began his research experience earlier this week. “I cannot stress how grateful I am for this experience. It will honestly be one of the most influential experiences of my life, and I'm very excited to see what these next few weeks have in store for me. The lab experience that I will gain will be invaluable to my future career.”
DIPG is a primary brain tumor of the brainstem and represents approximately 10 to 15 percent of pediatric brain tumors. DIPGs are aggressive lesions that are not amenable to surgical resection. Prognosis for these tumors has remained dismal, with a median survival of one year. Less than 20 percent of patients survive two years after diagnosis.
The current standard of care is focal irradiation. Radiation therapy has been the only treatment thus far that has led to clinical improvement and a delay in tumor progression in patients. A better understanding of the biology of this disease and novel therapeutic options is required to improve outcomes for children with DIPG.
“Six papers have been published by Joshua’s Wish supported students, which confirms to us that the award is providing its intended results,” said Labrina Solomon, president of Joshua’s Wish and a library assistant at Mercer Law School. “We appreciate Dr. Bucholtz and his efforts helping to select Mercer University students for this award.”