Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Trip to Chi-town for Science!

Dr. Christos Coutifaris, me, Dr. Clarisa Gracia
This past week I traveled to Chicago for the Oncofertility consortium, an annual conference held at Northwestern to discuss advances in the field of fertility preservation for cancer patients. As mentioned in my previous post, I am currently taking a year out from medical school to conduct clinical research in infertility, my field of interest. Oncofertility is an area in which my mentor, Dr. Clarisa Gracia, specializes.

The field looks at cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation that are toxic to the reproductive organs. For a long time these effects have been a medical afterthought, as the focus on survival after cancer diagnosis took precedent over other health concerns. But as improved cancer therapies result in better prognoses, it is necessary to consider the side effects associated with treatment. Specifically it is important to think about fertility preservation before cancer treatment begins so that patients may have options down the road for building families. While relatively easy for men to accomplish via sperm banking, for the women that Dr. Gracia sees the options are significantly more challenging and invasive. If there is adequate time before a cancer treatment begins she will work with the patient to bank embryos or eggs. And if there is not time to undergo a stimulation cycle, she offers patients the option of a small surgical procedure in which a piece of tissue from the ovary is removed and stored so that it may be used in the future to obtain eggs. This technology is not yet fully developed, however, and it must be explained to the patient that the procedure does not guarantee that they will be able to have biological children- we hope that by the time they are finished with their cancer treatments the science will have advanced.

I could go on and on about this topic, and being at the conference this week has gotten me more fired up, as I heard directly from all of the people working tirelessly to address some of the concerns of this new field. Basic scientists spoke about the advances in preserving the tissue samples and maturing eggs from them, lawyers and patient advocates spoke about the difficulties financing these procedures for patients, ethicists spoke about important moral considerations as the field advances, and cancer patients spoke about how grateful they were that these options were available. All of the members of the consortium come together each year (and at teleconferences throughout the year) with the idea that if they wait to read each others' papers when published in medical journals then the pace of advancement in the field will suffer. Thus, there was an incredible spirit of open collaboration, group problem-solving, and the sharing of everything from lab techniques and tips to cohorts of clinical research data. As this was my first real academic conference I can't yet say if this level of openness is unique, but it made me proud and in awe of those working in my chosen field.

Now that I have returned from Chi town I'm looking forward to starting a new epidemiology and study design class, beginning journal club for the Doris Duke students, and also working as a student preceptor in Doctoring class. Doctoring is a class for all first year medical students that focuses on the doctor-patient relationship and helps prepare students for life on the wards by addressing topics like cultural awareness and communication skills. Importantly, it is also a place where students can talk openly about the challenges they're facing, both academically and personally, and discuss difficult issues that may arise throughout medical school. My job as an older student is just to listen and occasionally chime in when asked a question about how things work in the wards. My group is incredibly insightful and I was blown away by some of their comments last session. This week's topic is cultural competency and I am excited for the discussion on Thursday!

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