Hematology. Break it down: Heme is the Greek word for “blood” and -ology is “the study of,” so… the study of blood!
Entering his third year of medical school at the University of Minnesota, former Cloquet High School student (and 2007 Homecoming King) Josh Pritchett has been named a National 2015 American Society of Hematology (ASH) HONORS Award recipient.
This means Pritchett will receive a stipend to further his research in this field, and will be provided with travel grants each year, for two years, to attend the ASH annual meeting to present his work and continue learning from leaders at the forefront of Hematology research. He earned this award - which is given each year to only a handful of promising young physicians and medical students throughout North America - when ASH selected his proposal to research infections in children who are undergoing bone marrow transplant. With that said, his career path is not about accepting prestigious awards.
“I’m young, and this is an incredible opportunity to learn what it means to ‘bring research to the bedside’ very early in my career,” Pritchett said. “In the clinic, I have had a chance to meet and learn from many extraordinary kiddos who are fighting cancer every day. Their courage and tenacity is so inspiring. Behind the scenes, I have also been able to see brilliant researchers in action, using inspiration from these little patients to push their field and fight alongside these kids and their families.”
The nitty gritty of bone marrow transplant
To understand the science behind Pritchett’s research, one first needs to know that inside a person’s bones is soft, fatty tissue known as bone marrow. Inside healthy bone marrow there are stem cells which are able to divide and turn into all the different types of blood cells: cells that you need to survive, including those that carry oxygen (red blood cells) and others that fight infection (white blood cells). However, serious illnesses can occur if these bone marrow stem cells get damaged.
In patients with leukemia, for example, cancerous cells divide uncontrollably inside the bone marrow. If chemotherapy is unable to kill all the cancerous leukemia cells, they can completely take over the bone marrow, which makes it
impossible for the stem cells to continue providing the necessary cells. At this point, the unhealthy bone marrow needs to be removed and replaced with bone marrow stem cells from a healthy donor, aka a bone marrow transplant.
The first ever successful bone marrow transplant was performed at the University of Minnesota in 1968, and the U of M has had a long history of pioneering groundbreaking research in the field ever since.
“Since the first successful bone marrow transplant, researchers have been working on perfecting this revolutionary treatment,” Pritchett said. “Bone marrow transplant is being used to treat a growing number of life-threatening conditions, and a lot of current research is aimed at making the procedure safer. In a perfect world, the new healthy stem cells would simply divide into blood cells inside the bone marrow, exactly like they did before the patient got sick.”
However, the world isn’t perfect and many complications can arise through a transplant.
For example, a patient’s immune system must be completely shut down for several weeks after the transplant; otherwise it can attack the new, healthy stem cells before they get a chance to make themselves at home in the bone marrow. As a result - during this period - transplant patients are at risk for getting serious infections.
“My project seeks to understand exactly which cells in the blood are being infected by a particular virus known as HHV-6 (human herpes virus-6), which is present in many transplant patients and can cause serious complications,” Pritchett said. He hopes that by understanding how the virus is able to infect these patients, future studies can be aimed at preventing this infection altogether.
As of right now, for all the science enthusiasts out there, Pritchett’s current lab work consists of using a flow cytometry machine (pictured next to him in the photo) to sort out cells from transplant patients based on characteristics unique to different blood cell types.
“What I have done is come up with a way to sort them, and then once they’re sorted, we will analyze them independently and hopefully a pattern will emerge,” Pritchett said.
According to their website, the ASH’s mission is to further the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disorders affecting the blood, bone marrow, and the immunologic, hemostatic and vascular systems, by promoting research, clinical care, education, training, and advocacy in hematology.
This November, Pritchett will present his preliminary findings to a conference at Harvard Medical School.
A good start
Graduating from Cloquet High School in 2007, Pritchett remains a hometown boy at heart.
“Cloquet was a great academic base for me. With the college-in-the-schools program, when I entered undergrad, I felt extremely prepared,” Pritchett said.
In retrospect, he is especially grateful for the variety of activities - in addition to academics - that he was able to participate in while growing up in Cloquet. Whether it was baseball, or choir, or hockey, or knowledge bowl, or missions trips, Josh is quick to acknowledge that much of his success today is a direct result of his small-town upbringing.
“I think now, even more than when I was a teenager, kids are tempted to put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves in high school to try and do one thing well,” Pritchett said. “I don’t think I would be nearly the person I am today if I had just focused on doing one thing well.”
Although he is still very young, Pritchett has learned from his mentors that becoming a good physician/researcher (or human being, for that matter) seems to require so much more than simply “being a sponge” of science knowledge.
“It takes creativity - the urge to push beyond where the science ends,” Pritchett said. “My love for this aspect of research has come out of the creative avenues I have been able to explore while singing in high school and through college.”
For him, research also takes discipline, and self-responsibility - to continue working on research even when a project fails, because the lab is counting on you, and “because a job worth doing is a job worth doing well,” Pritchett said.
He credits much of his skills to sports, family, and the “rocking” small town of Cloquet. He still has a lot to learn, he says, but having the opportunity to develop all these skills from a young age are the presents under a Christmas tree.
“I would encourage anyone to explore their passions and continue pursuing the things you love,” Pritchett said.
After Cloquet came his four undergraduate years at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“I loved my undergrad experience. The nature of being at a smaller school enabled me to jump right into research and form an incredible relationship with my research mentor,” Pritchett said. “Some of my classmates in medical school have described feeling like just another ‘cog in a wheel’ during their undergraduate experiences at larger institutions. That definitely wasn’t the case for me.”
After finishing his undergraduate studies, Pritchett spent almost three years working for the HHV-6 Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps support and promote research on HHV-6 worldwide. He then attended his first two years of medical school at the University of Minnesota Medical School campus in Duluth, jumping at the chance to come back and be a part of his brother Christian’s junior and senior year at Cloquet. If you attended any Cloquet football games, hockey games, or even tennis matches over the past two years, you definitely noticed Josh riling up the crowd and cheering on his younger brother. He can’t help it.
Family is one of the many things Pritchett creditsto his success. At one point during our conversation, he recalls a moment when he and his wife, Kim - an occupational therapist at Cloquet’s Community Memorial Hospital - were able to care for his grandfather, Denny Sorenson, who suffers with Parkinson’s Disease and lives at Sunnyside Health Care Center.
“I just can’t tell you how glad I am to be back home,” he says.
Pritchett will be finishing years three and four of medical school in Minneapolis while continuing his research in bone marrow transplantation at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Research Center. It is also worth noting that the ASH HONORS Award is not the only accolade Pritchett received this year. A few months ago, he was named the 2015 recipient of UMD Medical School’s prestigious Repesh Family Scholarship. This award, which is voted on by the members of each medical school class, is presented to the student whose peers believe “best exemplifies the finest qualities of a primary care physician: respect for people, empathy, dignity, integrity, warmth and compassion.