Nieman '12 is Cancer Researcher at U. of Chicago

Kerry Nieman '12
Kerry Nieman '12
As an intern at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Kerry Nieman ’12 has the opportunity to observe a gynecological surgery. As the surgeon removes some tissue the omentum (a large fold of the peritoneum), Nieman takes it immediately to her lab station and begins to run experiments on it. With support from the Jeffrey Fund for Science Internships, Nieman is spending the summer researching ovarian cancer.

One of the least-understood types of cancer, ovarian cancer is extremely difficult to diagnose in its early stages. It is called the “disease that whispers” because, by the time women display symptoms, the cancer is already far advanced. It is because of its difficult detection that ovarian cancer has a mortality rate of almost 80 percent—the highest mortality rate of all gynecological tumors and the leading cause of cancer-related death among women in the U.S. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 21,880 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 13,850 women will die of it this year alone. Research like that Nieman is doing is essential to understanding this particularly deadly type of cancer and stopping more preventable deaths.

Nieman is working at the University of Chicago Medical Center under Dr. Ernst Lengyel, an expert in the field of gynecologic malignancies like ovarian cancer. Working at this particular lab allows Nieman to conduct her own independent project, and since May she has been examining the differences between the extracellular matrices (the outer portion of the cell that gives it structural support) of pre- and post-menopausal women with both benign and malignant tumors.

“It has been found that women who take hormonal birth control pills or who have had multiple pregnancies have a lower chance of developing ovarian cancer, indicating that hormones play a huge role in ovarian cancer formation,” Nieman explained. “Our project is [analyzing] the differences in ovarian cancer cell adhesion and invasion to the extracellular matrices of women at different times in their cycle who thus have different hormone levels.” But Nieman’s research could be the beginning of an important breakthrough: “My project suggests that there is reason to further investigate these differences,” she said.

Nieman has been able to supplement her lab work by shadowing Doctor Lengyel in clinic and surgery. She follows him to his visits with patients, most of whom are in the middle of their treatment for gynecological cancer. She has watched several “debulking surgeries,” which means that the surgeon removes as much of the tumor as possible, then the surgeon approximates the cancer’s advancement to help with further treatment. After the tumor is removed, the patient usually undergoes a hysterectomy to prevent potential future growth.

After spending last summer with a non-profit focused on providing healthcare to those without insurance, Nieman is glad to have the opportunity to see another end of the medical profession. “Spending 10 weeks in one of the top hospitals in the country has provided me with the opportunity to explore many different career-options in the medical field on both the clinical and research side,” she observed.

Nieman will use the techniques she used in the lab in her biology courses this coming semester and hopes to attend graduate school after graduation.

The Career Center manages the Jeffrey Fund for Science Internships, which support full-time, off-campus internships related to science.

Nieman graduated from the Overlake School in Redmond, Wash.
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