Though Natalie Miller is only in her third year of the multi-year Medical Scientist Training Program, she is already making a difference in the lives of patients suffering from Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), a rare and deadly form of skin cancer.
Miller, who studies MCC in the laboratory of Paul Nghiem, M.D., Ph.D., the Michael W. Piepkorn Endowed Chair in Dermatology Research, is part of a team that recently made an important breakthrough in the treatment of the disease. In Nghiem’s lab, Miller focuses on using adoptive T-cell therapy, which allows researchers to identify a particular kind of “killer” T cell useful in fighting the virus associated with 80 percent of MCCs. “We expand the number of killer T cells, make them more potent, and then re-infuse them into our patients,” explains Miller.
Until recently, it was only possible to treat approximately 17 percent of MCC patients, those who have a specific type of protein in their blood cells, with this method. However, Miller and her fellow researchers were excited to discover new tools that allow them to identify killer T cells in a much larger fraction of patients. “The percentage of patients we can potentially treat has grown to 50 percent,” says Miller. Another wonderful part of the student experience? Being able to experience, firsthand, the effect the news has on people with MCC. “It’s rewarding to be able to inform patients about the discoveries we’re making and tell them that we can add them to clinical trials,” says Miller.
The Medical Scientist Training Program at UW Medicine offers a joint M.D.-Ph.D. track for students interested in combining clinical medicine with biomedical research. The program, among the top in the country, was a natural choice for Miller. Fresh out of high school, she participated in a summer internship at a National Institutes of Health lab in Montana where she studied infectious diseases.
As for the future, this young medical researcher says her career path is still up for debate, but she does know one thing for sure. “I really enjoy making the connection between what I’m learning in the lab and seeing patients with that particular disease,” says Miller. “Dr. Nghiem is a great role model; his work is truly translational.”