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Flip Side

Pharmacy students discover the world of drug development.

Most pharmacy students strive to be well-read in current prescription drugs, but before any drug comes to sit on a pharmacy shelf, there’s a whole other side to the story.

At Ohio Northern University’s Raabe College of Pharmacy, pharmacy students can catch a rare firsthand glimpse into the world of drug development, the process of creating a new prescription drug. The lab of Dr. David Koh, associate professor of pharmacology, is a prime example.

David Koh, associate professor of pharmacology, works in his lab with third-year pharmacy student Shelby McKamey.Since 2007, Koh has researched drug compounds that have the potential to improve cancer treatment. When he first came to ONU in 2013, Koh and his team of undergraduate lab researchers started working toward a new method to treat breast cancer by looking at the protein TRPM2 and its ability to target and destroy cancerous cells without harming normal cells. In the past few years, the crux of his research has shifted from breast cancer to melanoma treatment, since there are similarities in the way TRPM2 works in treating both diseases.

Right now, the research being conducted in Koh’s lab is all in-vitro studies (e.g., all testing is done on cell cultures within a petri dish). In-vitro is the first step of preliminary testing, an early phase in drug development. After in-vitro studies come in-vivo studies, which are done on mice, and then translational studies, which are done on human subjects. Every prescription drug in existence today had to undergo this or a similar process in order to be certified.

Koh’s student lab researchers help complete much of the day-to-day tasks needed to make this experimentation possible. For them, being involved in these studies means learning firsthand the journey a drug must take before it makes it into their textbooks.

They’re already studying drugs that are on the pharmacy shelf, and this is just giving them the opportunity to look at drug development and drug discovery – the flip side of the coin,” Koh says about his lab assistants. “We’re looking at finding the drugs, and it gives students a good grasp on everything that needs to happen in order to have a drug on the pharmacy shelf. It gives them a good appreciation for the process.

Shelby McKamey, a third-year pharmacy student from Arlington, Ohio, is now in her second year working in Koh’s lab. The first year was really about fundamentals: conducting simple tasks and learning the ropes of lab work. This year, though, she has moved into hands-on work, growing cell cultures that are used in the experiments on cancer research.

It’s been quite a high-impact learning experience for McKamey. Being a hands-on visual learner, working in the lab is the best opportunity to apply what she learns in the classroom, and her writing skills have improved from the documentation she’s compiled. It’s also opened her eyes to how the work she’s doing fits into the grand scheme of drug development.

“I’ve gotten a new perspective about how drugs are developed through being in this lab,” she says. “I get to develop the hard evidence that drug developments are based off of. I am a very analytical and evidence-based person, so I really enjoy being able to present the facts.”

While working in Koh’s lab last year, McKamey rubbed shoulders with Steven Blake, a sixth-year pharmacy student from Ravenna, Ohio, who was involved in Koh’s breast cancer research from the beginning. He just concluded his four-year stint in Koh’s lab last spring, when he began working on the preliminary testing for the melanoma research. Blake also was a 2015-16 winner of a Goldwater Scholarship, one of the country’s most elite scholarship programs in science, due in part to his experience in Koh’s lab. Now completing his sixth-year clinical rotations, he aims to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry developing new drugs.

McKamey feels privileged to be able to work with people like Koh and Blake. They bring so much knowledge and experience that she can learn from, and in a way, she feels connected to everyone who’s worked on this research.

It feels like a legacy almost, having so many people above me that have done great things,” McKamey says. “I like working with other professors and going into their labs to see what they do. Just having that personal interaction with senior professors is really cool. It’s been really great to write papers, get experience in the real world of publishing and be a part of the professional doctorate community.

For Koh, the feeling is mutual. He’s aware that his lab researchers have greatly benefited from the experience, but he’s not shy to the fact that it’s a symbiotic relationship. Like any good team, they all help each other.

“We learn together. I may think I know all the answers sometimes, but it’s not until we actually get in the lab and start getting results that I find out 50 to 70 percent of what I thought was true, isn’t," he says. "The beauty of research is in the mystery, and how you think something might turn out isn’t always how it is. That’s how you make discoveries, and hopefully, you might have your name in a textbook every now and then.”

When it comes to research, there’s always more – more to the story, more to discover, more than meets the eye – but on the flip side, the more you don’t know, the more you learn.