RESEARCH: Student published in medical journal before gaining degree

Katherine Gelber will graduate from the University of Hawai`i’s medical school on May 12, 2012 as an already published researcher. Gelber was lead author in an article accepted by the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics last August.

Katherine’s faculty mentor and co-author on the paper, Dr. Yusuke Marikawa, couldn’t be more pleased. Katherine spent two years investigating the impact of special culture medium on early embryo growth and development. Calling the results “provocative”, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal wrote that Gelber’s findings “are sure to raise eyebrows” in the field of Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

Gelber and her team’s goal, in plain terms, is to help couples that suffer from infertility or pregnancy-related problems that prevent them from having children. The John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Institute for Biogenesis Research (IBR), where the team performed their experiments, is a leading center of excellence in the science of in vitro fertilization. The IBR’s founder, Professor Emeritus Dr. Ryuzo Yanagimachi, laid the groundwork for human in vitro fertlization.

Although in vitro fertilization has produced a generation of children, it has not been perfected. That’s why the work of Gelber and her co-authors is so vital. It builds on available knowledge to minimize potential risks for babies conceived through the assisted reproduction technique.

Specifically, Gelber studied the impact of “embryo culture medium”, a supporting liquid used to nourish embryos in a Petri dish after fertilization and until being placed back in to the mother’s womb. Previous studies indicated that in vitro culture of embryos affect the activity of the genetic materials, which can manifest as health-related (including behavioral) problems later in life.

Gelber with Dr. Marikawa at JABSOM

Gelber’s study investigated the use of a special culture medium originally formulated to nourish stem cells, something that had not been tested for embryo culture. Her findings showed that the specialized stem cell culture medium might be better suited to nourish embryos than the culture media currently in use. Gelber’s team found the specialized stem cell culture medium particularly enhances the growth of a unique cell type important for fetal development.

“While more research is necessary in this area, the study brings us one step closer to improving the safety of assisted reproduction technology procedures,” said Dr. Marikawa.

Gelber, who is very grateful for her research opportunity, definitely plans to continue with both clinical medicine and research. “I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Marikawa and his colleagues,” she said. “It would have been impossible for me to design and execute a bench research project during medical school without their endless support and guidance.”

Gelber described the lab as “more than a workplace, it was like family — it is what makes JABSOM such a special place. Overall, the pace and process of research is different from that of clinical work, but to me it was equally rewarding and I hope to continue research endeavors during residency and beyond,” she said.

Gelber’s study, “A potential use of embryonic stem cell medium for the in vitro culture of preimplantation embryos”, in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health COBRE (Center of Biomedical Research Excellence).

Gelber, who graduated high school at Punahou, has been accepted into Columbia University’s post-MD residency program in Anesthesiology.

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