Engineering Hero: Treating Brain Cancer by Targeting Mutations

December 20, 2023

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Engineering Hero: Treating Brain Cancer by Targeting Mutations

Welcome to the seventh installment of Engineering Heroes, sponsored by Wind River, where we take a closer look at the lives of unsung heroes in the world of engineering whose work impacts uncountable lives across the globe. See the bottom of the article for additional content on Dr. Karisa Schreck and our other heroes.

Dr. Karisa Schreck grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where she was homeschooled alongside her four younger brothers. From childhood, she had a passion for learning that was not easily sated. So it makes sense that her favorite day every week was the day she and her family went to the library. And that one of her hobbies at home was reading through the dictionary to learn new words.

This love and zest for learning was fueled by family trips to places like car and plastic manufacturing plants where she could see product assembly lines, and even at such a young age, get an idea of how individual components worked together to create a functional whole.

Of course, being fascinated with the inner workings of machines and learning and problem-solving, a young Karisa knew with a level of certainty that when she grew up, she wanted to be a scientist.

“I always wanted to be a scientist,” Dr. Schreck said. “I knew that it's stating hypotheses and answering them was just in my DNA. I've wanted that my entire life.”

So, when Karisa started college, everything was on track for that plan… until she worked in a lab one summer shadowing an orthopedic surgeon and realized that medicine — certainly another field dedicated to identifying and solving problems — fascinated her as well.

After weathering the ol’ college identity crisis, she spoke with her mentor about the indecision she was suddenly being faced with. Medicine or science? And then Karisa’s mentor revealed something magical: an MD-PhD path that would allow Karisa to pursue both interests at the same time.

Moving the Goalpost

So, Karisa majored in biomedical engineering at NJIT. At that time, there weren’t a ton of specialized mechanical or electrical engineering courses or tracks, because the biomedical engineering itself was still in its early days. One of the last courses she took, though, centered around neural networks, and Karisa had another epiphany.

“That was the first experience I'd ever had learning about the brain and learning about how the brain is wired and understanding how these connections can be made and modeled through computer engineering,” Karisa said. “That was a love at first sight moment for me as well.”

Coincidentally, this was also around the time Karisa was applying for her MD-PhD programs. The winner was Johns Hopkins, where she learned more about neuroscience and the brain, and started really homing in on her passion: finding ways to improve the prognoses of brain cancer patients.

Now, Dr. Schreck is an assistant professor of neurology, oncology, and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, where she also co-directs the BRAF Brain Tumor Center. During her studies, Karisa noted a sizeable lack of goalpost movement for patients with brain cancer.

So she’s set about changing that, starting in her lab, where she uses her expertise in neuroscience to devise new solutions. When cells become cancerous, there are certain pathways in the brain that contain proteins that mutate; Dr. Schreck and the team she leads in her lab look at those neural pathways and try to devise new solutions — like drugs and metabolic therapy — that could, at least temporarily, shut off those pathways and block those mutations (like the BRAF mutation).

Dr. Schreck has already been able to use her findings to treat a couple of patients with the BRAF mutation in their brain cancers — and in both cases, the patient's prognosis was at least a year, “which seemed near-miraculous” compared to what Dr. Schreck was accustomed to seeing.

Dr. Schreck and her team of trainees in the lab are currently working on a clinical trial based on findings about how these proteins interact in glioblastoma and brain cancer, hoping that they can take what they learn and successfully apply it to their patients.

Editor's Note: For more Engineering Hero content, check out the links below.

Daire McNamara, Director and Firmware Engineer, Emdalo Technologies:

Nandini Kappiah, Senior Director of Software Engineering, Google:

Valentyn Hlukhotskyy, Senior Java Software Engineer, Euristiq:

Levi Zima, RF Microwave Engineer:

Samer Mabrouk, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Georgia Institute of Technology:

Anton Riström, Department Manager, Aker Solutions:

Dr. Karisa Schreck, Assistant Professor of neurology, oncology, and neurosurgery & Co-Director of BRAF Brain Tumor Center, Johns Hopkins:

Albert Manero, Co-Founder, Limbitless Solutions:

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