Mason Internship Program Partners with Virginia Tech’s Equine Medical Center
By Cathy Cruise
Combining a lifelong interest in horses with an opportunity to participate in hands-on medical research proved a perfect match this past summer for Lauren Marfurt, a junior in the Bioengineering Program at Mason. Marfurt was chosen to be the first Mason student to intern at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia, which newly partnered with Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP).
Marfurt’s 40-minute daily commute took her into the rolling hills of Leesburg and to the small but impressive laboratory situated amidst pristine stables, pastures, and a state-of-the-art hospital geared precisely for horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules.
“The ASSIP program was basically a nine-to-five job,” Marfurt says. “I would go in and do whatever needed to be done—helping to collect blood from a horse, running ELISA tests, organizing and analyzing data. It was a great experience because I got to work in the lab, as well as interact with the people at the hospital.”
Marfurt heard about the internship from Bioengineering Department chair Joseph Pancrazio. “He thought it would be a really great opportunity to get lab experience as well as experience outside the university,” Marfurt says. “And I thought the subject and the kind of work I’d be doing sounded really interesting.”
Pancrazio was familiar with the equine center because his wife is a lifelong equestrian. During an advising session, Marfurt mentioned to him that her family owned horses. “When I asked if she would be interested in exploring project opportunities at the equine hospital if we could work it out, she was delighted,” he says.
Virginia Tech equine surgeon Jennifer Barrett, PhD, DVM, served as Marfurt’s mentor. Barrett says the equine center’s distance from Blacksburg, Virginia, has limited the number of Virginia Tech students who could conduct internships. But the facility’s regenerative medicine and tissue engineering research, along with its close proximity to the Fairfax Campus, made it a good match for Mason’s Bioengineering program.
“It seemed a really synergistic relationship that we could develop, and I was excited about the opportunity,” Barrett says, adding that so far the initiative “has been wonderful for promoting equine research, as well as for the teaching opportunity it provided.”
Marfurt’s work at the equine center involved investigating different formulations of platelet-rich plasma (PRP), a therapy developed for humans and animals to heal soft tissue injuries. Platelets are one of the three main components of blood—along with red and white blood cells—and serve to store protein growth factors that stimulate healing. When a wound occurs and a blood clot forms, platelets are critical in getting that clot to heal. If an area fails to heal, PRP can be introduced into the wound to keep it from continuing to degenerate.
“The idea of PRP is to take the patient’s own blood, concentrate the platelets, and inject it into a site of injury,” Marfurt explains. “Therefore, when you have that many more platelets in the area, you have that much more activation and you improve healing.”
But the process for formulating PRP can be different for everyone, and processing that works for humans doesn’t necessarily work for horses. Marfurt’s job was to measure some of the positive healing-promoting growth factors in the PRP and also some of the negative, pro-inflammatory cytokines found in white blood cells. She then compared a number of different concentrations of platelets and white blood cells to determine whether limiting the white blood cells might produce a better result.
While researchers at the equine center are still analyzing the data and looking for statistical significance, initial results from the research showed that “the white blood cells did not have an overall negative effect,” Marfurt says. “Now that doesn’t tell us whether or not they inhibit the speed of healing. They’re continuing the study now.”
“We did establish that there’s a positive correlation between platelet levels and these growth factors,” Barrett says. “One of the growth factors seems to also track with white blood cells, so there may be a positive contribution there, as well. In contrast, it appears that pro-inflammatory cytokines increase with increasing white blood cells, so we need to determine what level of white blood cells is beneficial versus detrimental to healing. So we’re continuing to analyze data and perform statistical analysis. We should have some answers by the end of the month.”
Barrett hopes to see a peer-reviewed report on the research submitted for publication soon, and she’s proud that Marfurt’s name will be included. “To have Lauren involved in a project that ends up getting published is pretty exciting,” she says. “It is not common to have such a successful outcome for such a short project.”
Barrett is interested in continuing to partner with ASSIP and she hopes to put more Mason students to work at her facility. “Moving forward, I have an interest in having perhaps a senior design student from bioengineering to work on a project with us,” Barrett says. “Or even if there are other research interests and opportunities in the future for bioengineering students, we’re open to that.”
Mason researcher Lance Liotta established ASSIP in 2007 with Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin III and Amy VanMeter, all from Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.
“This partnership was very successful,” Liotta says. He looks forward to further ventures with the equine center.
ASSIP was created to allow high school and undergraduate students the chance to gain real work experience in laboratories. The program has grown to include undergraduates, medical students, and even postgraduate students who are further along in their careers.
“In terms of expanding the program, our problem now is the enormous demand,” Liotta says. “Last year, 350 people applied for 50 positions. It’s highly competitive. And it’s not based on grades only but on whether we think students are motivated in science, if they can impress us with their personal statement, and if they’d be a good match with the mentors they work with. So any kid who’s excited about science can apply.”
Pancrazio is grateful to ASSIP and especially VanMeter for making Marfurt’s internship possible. “Amy worked with Lauren and Dr. Barrett to provide a truly fruitful and rewarding summer internship experience,” he says.
“I couldn’t have asked for better people to work with or a better lab environment to get started in,” says Marfurt. “It’s given me skills that will be useful in the future. Since engineering and biology are merging, engineers need to have an understanding of how long it takes to conduct an experiment and how unpredictable biology can be. This gave me a very good understanding of both fields.”
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