Sean Rinella and Ethan Krauspe’s paths to cancer research are completely different.

One is a childhood leukemia survivor who spent much of his life surrounded by pediatric oncologists. The other is a rock climber who changed college majors and schools twice before settling on biochemistry.

Ethan Krauspe, CU Cancer Center Summer Research Fellow

Cancer Research Summer Fellow Ethan Krauspe and his preceptor Neil Box, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Photo by Kim Chriscaden

Despite separate paths, both Rinella and Krauspe applied to the Cancer Research Summer Fellowship at the University of Colorado Cancer Center with the hope of gaining hands-on experience in cancer research. Both were accepted to the fellowship and subsequently selected to receive funding from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Every year, St. Baldrick’s funds research grants at institutions around the world. One of these grants provides funds for students to work in pediatric oncology research labs, with the hope that the experience will lead to future careers in cancer research.

Due to the popularity of CU Cancer Center’s Cancer Research Summer Fellowship, Jill Penafiel, program coordinator, went looking for additional funding for student stipends. Fellows who are undergraduate, graduate or medical students receive stipends of $2,600 to $2,800 for their 10-week commitment.

“Our fellowship attracts some top-notch students from local high schools and national universities,” Penafiel says. “We want to continue to provide our students with small stipends for their time and commitment, but we can’t do that without the generosity of foundations like St. Baldrick’s.”

This year St. Baldrick’s awarded the CU Cancer Center $5,000 for two students interested in pediatric oncology research. The two students selected were Rinella and Krauspe.

A personal connection

In April 1997, Sean Rinella, then 9 years old, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Having spent significant time at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh as a patient and patient care technician, he’s seen two sides of pediatric oncology: doctor and patient.

“Having cancer really changed my life,” Rinella says. “Beyond being a patient and a patient care technician, I was able to shadow physicians and see their patient care styles. I also got to go to tumor board meetings and really experience what it’s like to be a pediatric oncologist.”

Sean Rinella, Cancer Research Summer Fellow

Sean Rinella, a childhood leukemia survivor, received one of the St. Baldrick’s grants to study AML this summer at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Sean Rinella.

But, one part of the equation was missing for Rinella, now 24; he hadn’t seen what it’s like to be a cancer researcher.

In 2010, while Rinella was pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, he heard about Colorado’s fellowship program. However, the application deadline had already passed.

Determined to apply to medical school in 2013, Rinella wants to build his cancer research resume, and the Cancer Research Summer Fellowship is the perfect place to do just that, he says.

“This is a great opportunity for me to build my research skills and get the hands-on experience in cancer research that I don’t have,” says Rinella. “Plus, I also get to see the medical school here on campus.”

Matched with Chris Porter, MD, CU Cancer Center investigator and pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Rinella will be studying the protein kinase Syk to see if it’s a potential target for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) therapy. He’ll learn to grow leukemia cells, treat them with chemotherapy and determine whether they are sensitive to the treatment.

“I’m really familiar with ALL, but now I get to learn about AML and that’s exciting,” he says. “Hopefully, I can take this experience to medical school. While I know I want to go into pediatric oncology, I want to see what it really looks like to be both a physician and researcher.”

Lured by the rocks

In 2008, when Ethan Krauspe graduated high school, he followed his rock climbing buddies out west to attend the University of Colorado Boulder as a history major.

“I’ll admit it,” says Krauspe. “I was basically lured by the rocks in Colorado.”

A year later, due to the recession, Krauspe headed back home to Chicago to attend a local community college. By now he was focusing his attention on construction instead of history; but that didn’t last long.

During Krauspe’s last semester at the community college he realized he was enjoying his chemistry and biology courses more than construction. With that, he applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as biochemistry major and was accepted. He’ll graduate in 2014.

Still an avid rock climber, Krauspe went looking for a research opportunity in Colorado that allowed him to catch-up with old friends and spend time climbing when he wasn’t in the lab.  He heard the CU Cancer Center offered a program.

“The nice thing about coming to Colorado this summer is I get to climb every weekend and during the week I get to experience rigorous academic challenges,” Krauspe says. “It’s a great combination.”

With experience working in a stem cell lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Krauspe applied to the fellowship with the hope of getting a position in a stem cell lab. He lucked out and was matched with Neil Box, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and researcher at the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology.

This summer Krauspe will be using mouse models to explore parallels with human melanocytes, the pigment producing cells within the skin, and melanoma development. He’ll be looking at key oncogenic and tumor suppressor pathways that regulate the development of melanoblasts or melanocyte stem cells. When these pathways are mutated early in life, they may give rise to melanoma in adults.

“It’s great to be able to do experiments right next to the researchers at the university,” Krauspe says. “They push you to make your own hypotheses and give you the hands-on experience to test them.”