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When Research Gets Personal

High school intern Kat Yi, left, assisting physiologist Oguz Gozen. “Having a mother with the disease pushes me to work harder,” he says. (Photo credit: Bryan Horan)

Over the summer, an unusual twosome worked together in an ALS research lab at Hopkins Hospital. One was a high school intern; the other, a young physiologist here on a research scholarship from Turkey. Both have been touched by ALS. Two teachers in student Gue Hee “Kat” Yi’s hometown have the disease. For physiologist Oguz Gozen, it’s even more personal: His own mother has ALS.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neuromuscular disorder that causes complete paralysis, loss of function and, eventually, the ability to breathe. It strikes about 5,000 Americans every year; most live only two to five years following diagnosis. The Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins, a collaboration of more than 30 scientists from Hopkins, other universities and biotech companies, is the only institution of its kind dedicated solely to curing the disease.

Kat Yi got a first-hand introduction to the Center in June 2004 when she and a busload of students arrived from Northport, N.Y., with a check for $32,000, funds they had raised for their teachers. During a tour of the labs, Center Director Jeff Rothstein offered a mentorship to a student with a strong science aptitude. Months later, Kat, a stellar student who hopes to become a surgeon, was selected.

She was paired with mentor Gozen, who is studying ways to protect key spinal cord neurons before they become hyperexcited and impair muscle function—a major cause of ALS. For his mother, Gozen recalls, ALS began with an unexplainable limp. At first her doctor thought she had multiple sclerosis. But when doctors diagnosed “motor neuron disease,” Gozen, then a medical student doing a rotation in the department of neurology, knew immediately they were using a euphemism for ALS.

Gozen is involved in NIH-sponsored translational research for possible ALS treatments. Research scholarships have taken him to labs all over Europe, but none, he says, compare with Hopkins. “Here you have resources, equipment and people to bounce ideas off of constantly.”

He will eventually return to his post at the Aegean University School of Medicine in Turkey.

Kat, meanwhile, is back at school. She plans to compete for a prestigious college scholarship and submit a paper on her research. “Through my experience at Hopkins, I was able to play a small part in my high school’s continuous effort to help find a cure for ALS.”

—Judy Minkove

 

 

 

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