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October 6, 2017
Interns Help Expand Critical Resource for Diagnosing Patients

Brenda Iriele grew up seeing first-hand the human cost of inadequate health care. Raised in Nigeria, a country where only two health care providers are available per 1,000 residents, she knew early on that she would devote her career to reducing health disparities experienced by people throughout the world. Now a medical student at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., she’s at a critical juncture in her career, trying to determine how to make that ambition a reality.

Iriele is one of three interns who spent the summer at the National Human Genome Research Institute as part of the NIH Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Sciences. She used her time to advance biomedical research that will have a direct impact on patients with genetic disorders.

Brenda Iriele, Brandon Davis (c) and Bernard Ndedi spent their summer working on the Atlas of Human Malformation Syndromes in Diverse Populations as part of the NIH Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Sciences.
Brenda Iriele, Brandon Davis (c) and Bernard Ndedi spent their summer working on the Atlas of Human Malformation Syndromes in Diverse Populations as part of the NIH Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Sciences.

PHOTO: ERNESTO DEL AGUILA III

Her summer project was to assist scientists with building out the Atlas of Human Malformation Syndromes in Diverse Populations, an online resource that helps health care providers diagnose patients who come from geographically diverse regions of the world. Using the atlas, physicians can compare physical traits and symptoms of their patients with photos and descriptions of people with the same condition and ancestry around the world.

“In Nigeria, there is a high rate of genetic malformations due to a high fertility rate,” said Iriele. “This atlas is something that is valuable to countries, like mine, that don’t have the infrastructure or resources for genetic screening.”

Iriele focused on patients with Turner syndrome (TS), a chromosomal condition affecting development in females. She collected images and symptom data from individuals of varying descents to evaluate whether these patients suffered from TS. Her findings will not only be included in an upcoming paper, but also will be incorporated in the atlas, helping doctors in search of a diagnosis access images of their patients’ symptoms. TS symptoms include extra folds of skin on the neck, swelling of the hands and feet and skeletal abnormalities.

“Our interns are contributing to a resource that can save lives and provide accurate diagnostics in countries that are limited in their resources,” said Dr. Max Muenke, atlas co-creator and chief of NHGRI’s Medical Genetics Branch. “This is an amazing opportunity for students who are interested in pursuing careers as clinicians to work on the atlas.”

Every year, thousands of applicants compete for spots in the NIH Summer Internship Program, which places interns at NHGRI and other institutes to conduct basic and clinical research. Applicants come from diverse backgrounds, but are all looking to grow their skill sets and shape their interests in the biomedical sciences and health care.

Bernard Ndedi, a 21-year-old medical student from Cameroon, collected images on Fragile X syndrome from physicians around the world and assessed the data for the atlas. Fragile X is a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental issues, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. The second-year Howard College of Medicine student believes the atlas can be used in countries that don’t have access to genetic and facial screenings and quickly provide therapies to children and adults who need it.

“As a physician, I would not only help people like me, but educate them on various health issues to further medical research and care in those countries,” said Ndedi.

Dr. Paul Kruszka, one of the three atlas co-creators, agrees that this is a growing field and believes preparing the next generation of researchers is vital.

“More genetic and genomic research is needed in developing countries,” said Kruszka, “and our summer interns are helping to bridge the global health disparity gap in rare disease and genetic syndromes.”

Brandon Davis, an aspiring physician currently pursuing his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, is getting a glimpse of what it’s like to help patients by contributing to the atlas. During his internship, he measured images of malformations and physical characteristics of Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a developmental disorder that is characterized by short stature, intellectual disability and abnormalities of bones in the arms, hands and fingers.

“This project is so important to me because it allows us to provide a diverse set of findings so patients receive accurate diagnoses and, hopefully, treatment,” said Davis.

In addition to learning about the disorder and contributing to the atlas, Davis spent his free time picking the brains of his fellow interns, inquiring about their medical school experience and getting advice that will inform the next steps in his career.

The application period for the 2018 NIH Summer Internship Program will open Nov. 15 and closes on Mar. 1, 2018.

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