MD/PhD student Kelly Craven and Dr. Korc in the lab
Research and development of life-saving cancer drugs is a long and costly process. Kelly Craven’s unique bioinformatics skillset makes this process easier, helping patients connect with treatments more quickly. Before becoming an MD/PhD student at Indiana University School of Medicine, Craven worked for five years in drug discovery informatics at Eli Lilly. Now, she’s about to graduate and will soon join the pathology residency program at Johns Hopkins.
Understanding the full scope of drug development: From hypothesis to patient care
Craven studied both undergraduate biology and computer science at Indiana University—Bloomington. This combination of skills led her to a five-year career at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. Despite enjoying the work, Craven wanted to do more. She wanted to be involved in more of the research pathway.
“At Eli Lilly I analyzed components of larger research studies, but I wasn’t involved in what went into the research design or hypotheses development,” Craven said. “I wanted to understand the bigger picture and drive studies rather than just be the person analyzing information. The MD/PhD track was perfect for me because I liked doing research but also wanted to better understand disease, medicine and how doctors think.”
The role of bioinformatics in Craven’s pancreatic cancer research
Despite wanting to do more than analysis, Craven’s analysis skills are an invaluable asset for cancer research. Sequencing a cancer cell’s genome to look for mutations is powerful way to study the disease. And looking at how specific drugs target these mutations can indicate the usefulness of a drug treatment. With billions of genes stored in a genome, sorting and identifying relevant mutations is nearly impossible without computer-aided analysis. This is where Craven’s skills come in. She builds and uses computer programs that report and summarize important genomic information, such as relevant cancer genetic mutations. The programming process is complex, and Craven’s understanding of biology is fundamental to building valuable analysis systems.
One such system was vital in her PhD research, which lead to the identification of drugs to treat certain kinds of pancreatic cancer.
“Pancreatic cancer is a big killer. It’s the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” Craven Said. “My research focused on targeting specific pathways that drive angiogenesis – the development of new blood vessels that allows tumors to grow. By analyzing genomic data, I found that there’s a subset of 35 percent of pancreatic cancer tumors that have a gene expression signature prevalent in angiogenesis. I was then able to use some existing drugs to target those pathways and successfully treat that subset of pancreatic cancer in pre-clinical models.”
Craven didn’t always know she wanted to specialize in pathology. However, she quickly learned that the skills she had a knack for in research translated well to pathology. During her final year at IU School of Medicine she even became the Pathology Specialty Interest Group (SIG) President to educate classmates about the specialty. Pathology offers above average satisfaction, below average stress and access to interesting and rare medical cases. The pathology residency program at Johns Hopkins was Craven’s first choice because of the program’s reputation and focus on pancreatic cancer research. As a resident, Craven hopes to continue studying pancreatic cancer.
The next stage
Making lifelong friendships is one of Craven’s favorite aspects of her eight years at IU School of Medicine. At times, it was hard to say goodbye to friends in the four-year MD program as they moved to residencies across the country. Craven stays in touch and finds excuses to visit friends whenever she can though. Now, as Craven and her husband get ready to leave their home in downtown Indianapolis, she will miss the city she watched grow over the years – along with her favorite bike paths and restaurants. But she can’t wait to welcome visitors to their new home in Baltimore.
Kelly Craven in her white coat
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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