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Brian Iskra: The Perennial Quest

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Author: Charlotte Anthony | Category: Meet The Researcher | Cancer Biology | Cancer Biology | July 05, 2016

Brian Iskra grew up going to the doctor. He was 10 years old when he found out that he had glaucoma in his right eye.

“It’s pretty rare, about 1 in 100,000 people get it,” he said. “The doctors made me feel that I had control of the issue. That’s the hallmark of good clinical care ― when people feel empowered to fight whatever condition they have.”

Doctors always felt inspirational to him for this reason. To give a child this ability to fight their disease and protect their sight was something he always admired. Ultimately, this gave Iskra an interest in pursuing a career in medicine.

Iskra grew up an only child in a household of Polish immigrants in Staten Island, New York. As is the typical story of immigrant families, Iskra was pushed to study and attain an education that his parents were never able to achieve in their country of origin. 

During his junior year of high school, he had a teacher named Dr. Sara Guarigilia (a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the time) who advised him to think about being a researcher. She was able to help him learn about research and start exploring a career in science. This ultimately sparked Iskra’s passion for neuroscience and helped him find the purpose and future he sought. To properly address this, he attended the Macaulay Honor’s College of the City University of New York at the College of Staten Island, which allowed him to begin doing research upon his matriculation.

His undergraduate education served as a time of self-discovery and endless curiosity. Iskra wanted to learn everything he could about science, to lay the ground work for being the best researcher he could possibly be, compelling him to study biochemistry, which gave him a chance to learn a sampling of math, chemistry, biology, and physics.

As he pursued his education, Iskra became deeply interested in computer science and engineering as well. To unify his interests, he began to think about pursuing neuroengineering and computational neuroscience as a Ph.D. student.

However, it wasn’t until his junior year of undergrad that he rediscovered his interest in medicine and begun to truly address it. He didn’t want to forsake his identity as a researcher, but he still wanted to practice medicine.

The M.D./Ph.D. program attracted me because I was drawn to the inherent complexity of biological systems, and it seemed like healthcare is a great place to make a difference,” he said. “When you see a cancer patient and you see the despair in their eyes, you can’t help but want to make a difference.”

In 2013, Iskra was admitted to the M.D./Ph.D. program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. It was a very exciting part of his life, as he prepared to leave his home town and begin to pursue his career as a physician-scientist. With his deep interest in neuroscience in mind, he explored many interesting topics in medicine.

Yet he would soon find his interests and calling change dramatically.

During his first year of medical school, he found out that his close friend, Roman Levitskiy, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“By the time he had found out about the cancer, it was already stage four, which has a 60 percent survival rate,” he said. “It made me think about being an oncologist. I love him. He’s one of my best friends, and I don’t want him to die.”

As a result of seeing Roman go through chemotherapy and experiencing what it is like to see a loved one go through cancer, Iskra became interested in advocacy for cancer patients. In particular, he heard about a childhood cancer charity named St. Baldrick’s during medical school.

It was through his involvement as a shavee, that he met Dr. Gregory Aune. Dr. Aune was a childhood cancer survivor doing research on the long term health of childhood cancer survivors after they were exposed to doxorubicin, a commonly used chemotherapy agent.

“I became interested in understanding what could happen to Roman after his treatment. Dr. Aune’s lab was a place where I could figure out what would happen to him and how could I make a difference in the lives of cancer survivors.”

Iskra now studies how the vasculature is affected by chemotherapy exposure.

“People don’t really pay attention to the vasculature, but it plays a major role in every organ system,” he said. “My research in Dr. Aune’s lab looks at how drug exposure early in life ultimately alters the course of aging.”

Iskra explained that not many people are looking at this type of research because we have an 80 to 90 percent cure rate of some childhood cancers.

“If you talk to the average person, they would say that pediatric cancer has been solved. Even if we were to cure cancer, would it be humane to stop looking at how to improve the cure and the side effects?” he asked. “This research is important because we see an early aging phenotype and we need to stop and address that.”

“Chemotherapy is extremely stressful to the body,” he explained, “there’s no way you could look at this and say everything is going to be alright afterward.” Doxorubicin, an essential and powerful drug in the clinical armamentarium against cancer, has long lasting and deleterious side effects.

While much success in the treatment of childhood cancer is owed to doxorubicin, patients receiving this medication can develop heart problems.

“While it is well known that patients may develop a cardiomyopathy during treatment with doxorubicin, there is an underappreciation that many patients will experience cardiovascular side effects later on in life.”

Iskra seeks to determine mechanisms by which doxorubicin can do this, so that we can treat and prevent cardiac complications as a result of chemotherapy exposure.

The M.D./Ph.D. allowed him to pursue this path. This degree program is significant because it provides a “sandwich model” where you attend two years of medical school then four years of graduate school and then another two years of medical school.

“With the M.D., you get to see the patients and understand what it’s really like. This motivates you to find out that mechanism and think about things that a basic scientist generally isn’t able to,” he said. “At the same time, getting a Ph.D. gives you a different perspective that I wouldn’t get if I just went through medical school alone. I don’t think I’d have found the niche that I currently enjoy outside of an M.D./Ph.D. program, and I can’t imagine choosing to do anything else. I really love what I do.”

Iskra is also passionate about mentorship. He is currently working with an undergraduate, John Beckman, a student at St. Mary’s University.

“Undergraduate mentorship was a huge part of my life. I wouldn’t be here without it,” he said. “I see it as a responsibility. There are a lot of mistakes everyone makes when they get into research, and I want to make sure he gets everything he needs so when he’s getting his PhD… he’s prepared.”

He owes much of his success and passion to great, caring mentors who taught him how to do research and be curious.

“My mentors as an undergraduate taught me so much, not only about science, but also how to be a good human being. They were really important role models to me and I’m really grateful for the time they invested in me.”

He hopes that one day, he could, just like them, be an inspirational mentor and help others become deeply passionate about science.

When he’s not in the lab, Iskra enjoys many hobbies, including weightlifting, road biking, listening to metal, cooking, and travel.

He is currently training to go on a bike tour through Europe with Roman.

“I just caught the travel bug, I wanted to do something physically active, and I wanted to do it with my best friend,” he said. “I feel like medical school got me more interested in how people live, the world, and my own health. Exercise really became a big passion of mine, and I want to make it extolling its benefits part of my career. Combining it with travel, where I get to meet new people and see the world is a really awesome idea.” Iskra has visited Japan and is looking forward to seeing many new places in August. 

This article is part of the "Meet The Researcher" series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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